Polk Center’s Uncertain Future: Lawmakers Discussing the Fate of Pennsylvania State Centers
On Tuesday, a Pennsylvania House Human Services Committee hearing focused on the issue, which has surfaced several times over the last few years.
In 2017, State Representative Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre, Mifflin), introduced Pennsylvania House Bill 1650 to enact the “Home and Community-Based Support for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities Act,” which stated “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.” The bill was then referred to the Health Committee on July 8, 2017, where it languished until it died the end of the session.
While legislation calling for the closure of the other centers has not been reintroduced yet in 2019, according to statistics from the Department of Human Services, the number of individuals served in the state centers has continued to decline.
“This nationwide trend is consistent with research that shows people are happier and live a more fulfilling life in a community setting versus an institution,” Erin James, Press Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) told exploreClarion.com.
“In general, the goal is to serve people in the least restrictive environment possible that meets their needs and helps them achieve an everyday life.”
The four remaining state centers – which include Polk in Venango County; Ebensburg in Cambria County; White Haven in Luzerne County; and Selinsgrove in Snyder County – currently serve about 700 residents and employ over 2,600 workers.
According to information from the DHS, only four people have been admitted to state centers in Fiscal Year 2018-19 and a fifth person is pending admission. During Fiscal Year 2017-18, a total of 14 people were admitted to state centers. The average age of people living in state centers is 62, and the average stay in a facility is 45 years.
With the number of residents in decline, some lawmakers are concerned the facilities will reach a point where the cost of operating them will become too much of a burden in relation to how few people they serve.
The concern about the cost of operating the centers is only one concern, as there are some individuals and organizations who see the state centers as outdated and would like to eliminate them completely, as Rep. Kerry Benninghoff advocated in his legislation.
“I think what people have to realize is that the same population in the state centers are also being served outside the state centers now,” said Sherri Landis, executive director of The Arc of Pennsylvania.
“The numbers are not increasing in state centers because more and more families see the value of people living in the community.”
Landis said she hopes the committee will hold an additional hearing to allow those who support the closure of the state centers to weigh in on the matter.
“The Arc has always advocated closing the state centers,” Landis said. “We would like to have an opportunity to tell the public about the success we had with the closing of Hamburg and other centers.
“The people leaving them are living and working in the community, and it’s been quite successful. I think people would be so inspired by the stories we could tell.”
Hamburg State Center, in Berks County, was officially closed in 2018 following a 19-month process to accommodate 80 residents with alternative services that meet their needs.
“The decision to close Hamburg is consistent with the Wolf Administration’s commitment to reduce reliance on institutional care, serve more people in the community, and most importantly, make it possible for people to live an everyday life, as their fellow citizens do,” James noted.
According to James, the Office of Administration’s Human Resources and Labor Relations staff were able to secure employment opportunities for most of the 351 employees who had been employed at Hamburg Center, with a majority of the employees choosing to transfer to other Commonwealth employment opportunities or retire.
With one successful closure and questions of both the finance and the type of care provided by state centers, its fate seems uncertain.
According to The Daily Item, Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, (R-Bucks), chairman of the House Human Services Committee, noted he believes decision about the care people with disabilities should be made by their relatives and “not by someone sitting in an office in Harrisburg or someplace else.”
During Tuesday’s hearing, DiGirolamo was also presented with petitions, with over 10,000 signatures, expressing support for the state centers.
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