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Wolf calls for cuts to White Haven Center

Standard-Speaker - 2/5/2020

Feb. 5--Gov. Tom Wolf stuck by his plan to close White Haven and Polk centers in a budget proposal Tuesday, even though a majority of lawmakers have voted to keep centers open for at least five years.

Wolf's budget recommends a cut of $2.88 million at Polk and White Haven as residents with intellectual disabilities move out, but adds $594,000 to help them adjust to community settings. He also would reserve $5 million to help communities rebound economically from the closing of facilities like White Haven or another institution in Luzerne County that he wants to close, the State Correctional Institution at Retreat.

Lawmakers, however, passed a bill that delays the closing of any state center for at least five years and says no center would close unless a plan is in place and a task force approves.

Wolf has said he will veto the bill, but has 10 days to make a decision from Monday, when the bill reached his desk.

On Aug. 14, 2019, Wolf proposed closing centers at White Haven and Polk, which is in Venango County, in three years. He said every resident will have a plan to continue receiving services after moving to a community residence or other setting.

For the year starting July 1, his budget proposes only modest cuts at White Haven and Polk.

Spending at White Haven would go down 3%, or $1.53 million. White Haven would lose 20 residents while dipping to a population of 92 in July, the budget forecasts.

For people with intellectual disabilities already living in the community but waiting for services, the budget proposes an increase of $15 million. The money would remove 832 people from a waiting list of 13,000.

The budget points out that caring for people with disabilities costs less in the community than at centers, which have seen a decreasing population for years.

By July, the centers will have 635 residents, the budget estimates, while 56,302 people with intellectual disabilities will receive home and community services.

In his budget address, Wolf said he wants to ensure that "communities are protected when a state facility closes."

State Sen. John Yudichak, I-Swoyersville, on Tuesday said the governor acknowledged that closing will hurt communities in Luzerne County.

"The proposal of a $5 million state grant fund to assist communities negatively impacted by the closure of a state facility is a good first step," Yudichak said in a statement, "but much more needs to be done in this budget to help Luzerne County recover from the loss of $100 million in annual economic impact and more than 800 jobs."

State Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-119, Newport Twp., said he, Yudichak and Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp., negotiated with the governor's administration for two months to arrive at $5 million for community relief.

"Personally, I think that should be multiplied by five at least, but I understand that the governor's proposal is a start, and I look forward to working with my House and Senate colleagues and the administration in an attempt to get that raised," Mullery said.

He thinks the 3% cut in White Haven's budget for next year merely reflects actual operating costs because deaths and transfers will reduce the census.

Erin James, press secretary for the state Department of Human Services, said she will have more information about the budgets for state centers today.

Mullery has asked the governor to reconsider and sign the bill keeping centers open for at least five years, especially in view of a report issued last month by the Inspector General for the U.S. Health Human Services Department. When examining incidents involving people with intellectual disabilities living in community settings in 2015 and 2016 in Pennsylvania, the inspector general found 307 emergency room visits and 167 hospital admissions that weren't reported to state agencies or law enforcement even though abuse or neglect was indicated.

In the years since the incidents happened, the state has taken steps to improve notifications, such as by requiring deaths that happen in private homes, not just residences operated by providers, to be reported since 2017 and enhancing a system that tracks and follows up that reports are made, in 2018.

State Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-116, Butler Twp. said local lawmakers will continue fighting to ask the governor to change course and keep White Haven open.

"There are other ways to save money at White Haven by staffing departments appropriately and allowing families to choose White Haven as an intermediate care facility for their child or sibling," Toohil said.

On Friday, Toohil, Yudichak, Mullery, Baker, Sen. John Gordner, R-27, Berwick, and other government officials from Northeast Pennsylvania said they plan to support a Community Recovery and Reinvestment Act for areas where a state facility closes. The lawmakers gathered at a restaurant in Plymouth Twp. near SCI-Retreat, which has about 400 employees, as does the White Haven Center.

The act, if approved, would establish a response team and invest resources in a strategy to help families and communities after state facilities close.

Contact the writer:

kjackson@standardspeaker.com; 570-501-3587

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