House Bill Calls for Closure of Four State Hospitals

HARRISBURG, Pa. (EYT) — Venango County has dealt with more than its share of difficulties over the last several years, but some state lawmakers are looking to add to its woes with a measure that could shut down the county’s largest employer.

Pennsylvania House Bill 1650, introduced by State Representative Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre, Mifflin) earlier this year, would allow for the closure of four state hospitals that serve individuals with intellectual disabilities.

If legislation is passed, House Bill 1650 will enact the “Home and Community-Based Support for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities Act,” which states “all State facilities shall be closed and shall not provide any services or support to individuals with intellectual disabilities on or after January 1, 2023.”

Polk State Center – located just off U.S. Route 62 in Polk, Venango County – would be one of them.

Benninghoff’s March 23, 2017 memo, lays out his reasoning for the cost-saving move, following the decision of Gov. Tom Wolf, who announced the state would close Hamburg State Hospital in January 2017.

Pennsylvania has closed ten state hospitals since 1955. Since then, the average daily number of patients has fallen from 41,500 to just 1,500.

Those who favor closing the facilities, including Benninghoff, believe moving people from state-run hospitals to community-based services is better for the patient in the long-run, but others question if the state puts enough money into the system to make it work.

House Bill 1650 was referred to the Health Committee July 8. It has 15 sponsors, including 12 Republicans and three Democrats. Most are from eastern Pa., but there are a few from the western part of the state, including Rep. Brad Roae, a Republican who serves parts of Crawford and Erie counties.

If legislation is successful, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services will prepare a plan for not only the closure of the facilities but also the transition of those currently receiving care to a home and community-based support system.

The plan includes the following:

  • A certified independent appraisal of each State facility property.
  • A report on data of the State employees employed at each State facility, both full time and part-time, including the total number of employees, the total wages paid, the total benefits paid and the organizational flow chart for the employees working at each State facility.
  • A detailed report of the services provided at each State facility by contracted third-party vendors.
  • An inventory of assets located at and improvements on each State facility.
  • A report of all electric, utility, water, landscaping, snow removal and maintenance costs of each State facility.
  • Geospatial images of each State facility.
  • A detailed description of the existence, ownership rights and appraised value of any mineral rights on the State facility property.
  • A historical report of the institutional property, including the date it was acquired or constructed, the dates of any improvements thereon, any changes in property records such as subdivision of the property, historical employment or complement levels, and historical data.

A public comment period will be open until September 1, 2018, for the purpose of soliciting comments regarding the draft of the plan.

A series of public hearings will be held during this period.

At least one public hearing will be held in close vicinity to each State facility.

The hearings will allow for testimony from individuals with intellectual disabilities who reside at the State facility, family members of patients who live at the facilities, employees, contracted vendors, home and community-based support system providers in the immediate geographic area of the State facility, elected officials, and community leaders.

The Department of Human Services will also establish a hotline for inquiries regarding the provisions of the act.

Additionally, the bill requires the formation of an advisory committee to assist the Department of Human Services with the transition.

Two prominent Venango County politicians – one a Republican and the other a Democrat – strongly oppose the bill, and for various reasons.

State Representative R. Lee James (R-Venango/Butler) told, “Kerry (Benninghoff) and I are friends, and we’ve worked together on many things in Harrisburg, but I told him that it was a terrible idea, and I would do whatever it takes to stop this.”

“Some of these people have been there for their whole lives, and this measure doesn’t take into consideration the care of the people at these facilities,” James continued. “Displacing more than 250 people into group homes where they couldn’t be properly treated would be difficult to impossible.”

“It’s beyond the pale to me,” James added.

James also addressed the people who work at Polk State Center.

“Many of these people have worked there for decades, for their entire lives and they love their jobs and the people they serve. For many, it has become a family,” James said.

“I hope this quickly goes away.”

Venango County Commissioner Albert “Chip” Abramovic, a Democrat, has nothing positive to say about the bill either.

“I think it’s a horrible idea to shut it down,” Abramovic said. “It’s sad. What happens to the patients who live there? We need to fight this.”

Abramovic also pointed out the negative economic impact to the county.

“It would be huge. It’s really going to hurt the mental health budget and strain human services in the county,” Abramovic said.

Polk State Center’s roots stretch back to 1893 when Pa. Governor Robert E. Pattison appointed a commission to select a site in Northwestern Pennsylvania for the creation of an “Institution for the Feeble-Minded.”

After careful consideration, the Polk site was chosen due to its abundance of natural resources, fertile farmland, and access to railways.

Construction soon began on the 2,000-acre campus, and “Polk State School” opened its doors in the spring of 1897.

By 1955, the census at Polk State Center, which has undergone several name changes over the years, exceeded 3,400 persons. This number dropped to 3,000 in 1970 and has continued to decline significantly over the decades due to the growing trend of community-based services.

Fewer than 300 residents now live at the facility.

Polk State Center employs approximately 800 people, according to the Department of Human Services.

House Bill 1650 would also shut down White Haven State Center in Luzerne County; Selinsgrove State Center in Snyder County; and Ebensburg State Center in Cambria County.

A complete copy of the bill can be accessed here.

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