Gov. may close Blair’s Department of Health office

As part of Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget, the state may close 26 Department of Health centers – including the one in Blair County – within a few months.

“The goal of the modernization plan is to increase access to services by mobilizing staff into communities and not having them bound by bricks and mortar,” stated department spokeswoman Holli Senior.

SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, which represents department employees, opposes the plan, which will mean elimination of 73 jobs, including 26 nurses, according to a union source and Susan Templin, school health consultant for the department’s South Central District, which includes Blair.

The Blair office – which employs two nurses and a clerk typist – will fold into the Huntingdon County office, according to Senior.

She cited union agreement protocols in declining to say whether any of those local workers will lose their jobs, but she said no community health nursing positions providing direct service will be eliminated.

Other local offices will be affected: The Fulton County office will fold into Bedford County, Somerset will fold into Cambria, and Jefferson will fold into Clearfield, said the union source.

The “new model” will take advantage of “well-attended senior fairs, legislative-sponsored health expos and other community health events … where people can easily find us,” as part of an effort to ensure the department is “providing services where people live and work and to those who need them most,” Senior said.

Some centers now receive only a handful of walk-ins per week, she said.

The centers’ “core services” involve sexually transmitted disease services, HIV services, animal bite investigations, disease investigations, immunizations, and tuberculosis screening and case management, Senior said.

The streamlining will include community health assessments by nurses, using data collected by agencies already required to do that work, so the department can “better identify populations we can serve that currently do not come to state health centers,” Senior said.

The union doesn’t buy the department’s optimism.

“I have a hard time being able to believe” that services will remain as robust after the changes, Templin said.

In placing workers at greater distance from their home territories, the department will damage its responsiveness, according to the union.

Community events are not the way to deliver immunizations routinely, Templin said.

And center closings – some of which, including Blair’s, is set for the end of this month – may also violate a 1996 law that ended an attempt to privatize the system, according to the union source.

The changes include elimination of technical consultants like Templin, who advise school nurses. Nurses are the only qualified medical personnel in their school complexes, and they must deal with students with serious medical issues, she said.

Templin disputed the notion that the centers as currently set up are redundant with other agencies. She doesn’t know what other agencies would have enough personnel to handle disease control during floods and other disasters or to the spread of diseases among clients without health insurance or regular doctors.

Templin expects to lose her job in the realignment.

She isn’t “whining,” she said. “We [just] don’t want to see the public receive the short end.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038. The Associated Press contributed to this story.