Wolf vetoes bill to keep centers open

Two facilities for intellectually disabled tagged for closure

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf followed through Wednesday on his threat to veto legislation designed to prevent his administration from closing two state centers for the intellectually disabled that house about 300 people.

The bill, Wolf said in a statement, would have continued a reliance on institutionalization and did not meet his goals for serving more disabled people through community services, where he said they have better and more integrated lives.

State Rep. Frank Burns, D-Johns­town, blasted Wolf’s veto in a statement, calling it a callous approach to vulnerable patients’ needs.

Burns said that besides ignoring the best interests of intellectually disabled residents, their families and dedicated workers at such facilities, Wolf countermanded the will of bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate.

The bill emerged after Wolf’s announcement in August that he would close White Haven in northeastern Pennsylvania and Polk in northwestern Pennsylvania, continuing a decades-old trend away from institutional care.

The bill passed the Republican-controlled Legislature and would have prevented a governor from closing any of Pennsylvania’s four remaining state centers for at least five years, and then only with approval from an independent task force.

“While Ebensburg State Center was not on the Wolf administration’s immediate chopping block, two similar facilities were, and I enthusiastically supported this bill,” Burns said. “It’s sad that in an age when people want to see Democrats and Republicans work together for the common good, the governor fails to adhere to the will of the people and a bipartisan coalition in the legislature.”

Burns, who helped fend off the state’s attempt to close Ebensburg State Center in 2017, said it pains him that Wolf has never taken him up on an offer, extended multiple times over the past two years, to visit the facility for a firsthand view of the people who’d be most affected by a closing.

Burns indicated he would join a bipartisan effort to override that decision if it ss brought for a vote.

He noted that once the Polk and White Haven state centers are closed, Ebensburg and Selinsgrove state centers would be next up for closure.

The closings of the White Haven and Polk centers were fought by employees and family members of the centers’ residents, who also filed a lawsuit in federal court in an effort to block the shutdowns.

Employees and relatives say the state centers have been good for its residents, the services are comprehensive, the staff is professional and better trained and moving could be traumatic for many residents who have severe disabilities.

In community settings, they say, services are delivered by underpaid or poorly trained workers in jobs with high turnover. Medical professionals aren’t close by, leaving a 911 call as the only option during a severe behavioral episode, they say.

Wolf’s administration, however, had prominent allies, including the Arc of Pennsylvania and Disability Rights Pennsylvania.

Closing the centers could mean more money for 13,000 people on a waiting list for state aid to begin or upgrade the services they receive in community settings, whether in smaller group homes with around-the-clock care or with relatives where they receive in-home visits by care workers.

Currently, the state centers see just a trickle of new residents, normally by court order, administration officials say.

The state’s tab for services in community setting will approach $3.5 billion this fiscal year for roughly 56,000 people. White Haven and Polk cost about $130 million for about 300 residents.

Residents at White Haven and Polk, where original buildings date back more than a century, can also move to one of the two other state centers, Selinsgrove and Ebensburg, where about 400 beds are available, Wolf administration officials say.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)