Local Leaders Stunned, Outraged Over Pennsylvania Closing Polk State Center
POLK, Pa. (EYT) – Local leaders were caught off guard and are outraged about the Commonwealth’s decision to close the Polk State Center in Polk, Pa., by 2022. The announcement was made on Wednesday, August 14.
“I am emotional, disturbed, and upset,” Pennsylvania State Representative R. Lee James, who represents Venango County, told exploreClarion.com. “And, I don’t know in which order.”
James said he found out about the closure of the intermediate care facility for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, which is the largest employer in Venango County with over 700 employees, at around 9:10 or 9:15 a.m. on Wednesday. That was shortly before a media release announcing the closure was sent out by Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller.
The Polk State Center is one of two similar facilities in the Commonwealth that were announced as part of the closure with the other being the White Haven State Center in Luzerne County.
“I think the governor (Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf) is dead wrong in his decision,” James said. “I had a meeting with a person who won’t be named about six months ago, and I was assured (Polk State Center) was not being considered for closure. Either that person was being lied to or that person didn’t tell me the truth. It was a complete shock (the announcement). It was not expected. I plan to do everything I can to get the decision reversed.”
Venango County Commissioner Albert “Chip” Abramovic said he was caught off guard by the announcement but didn’t waste any time in letting Governor Wolf know his displeasure.
“I was on my way to Pennsylvania Ag Days in State College when I found out,” Abramovic said. “I was going to turn around and head back to Venango County, but then I realized the governor was going to be there (at Ag Days) and I needed to talk to him about this. When I got there, I talked to the Lt. Governor (John Fetterman) and then I talked to the governor. He got an earful from me for three minutes. I asked him what we can do to fix this, and I encouraged him to come out and tour (Polk State Center) and see how beautiful it is and what can be done with it.
“I told him I haven’t asked him for anything the last four years, but I am asking you for this.”
Abramovic said Wolf didn’t really have a response but gave Abramovic the numbers of people to contact about the situation.
“(Wednesday night) I am going to regroup and start to think about how we can get things in place and what we (as a county) can do to help,” Abramovic said. “They are our largest employer, and our largest employer is pulling out of the county.”
State Senator Scott Hutchinson, who also represents Venango County, took issue with how the announcement was made while also believing the decision to close Polk State Center is unwarranted.
“Secretary Miller was also deceptive and disingenuous in the way this announcement was made,” Hutchinson said in a media release. “I have repeatedly asked her to keep me apprised if there were changes in store for Polk State Center, so I was completely taken off guard (Wednesday) morning. This is not the end of the conversation, however.”
Hutchinson said he believes the decision to close the Polk State Center was fueled by misinformation.
“I am truly disappointed that Governor Wolf is making a misguided decision based on incorrect numbers to close Polk State Center,” Hutchinson said. “The choices of residents and their families have been completely left out of the equation even though Polk is their home and they feel comfortable with the quality of the care they receive there.”
James’ beliefs are similar to Hutchinson’s.
“The governor’s decision is completely misguided,” James said. “It doesn’t take into full consideration the residents and their families and the time they have been there nor does it take into consideration the employees.”
Venango County Commissioner Vincent Witherhup said while there has been talk of the closing of the whole state-wide system that Polk State Center is a part of, he wasn’t aware of what was happening until just before the closing announcement hit the media.
“This hit me by surprise,” Witherup said. “It was a (really bad) way to announce it. Half the people in the county seemed to know before the commissioners. We had no forewarning this was coming. We weren’t told in any way.”
An employee of the Polk Center, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the employee isn’t authorized to speak on the closing, told exploreClarion.com that an announcement was made to all the staff on Wednesday morning.
“It’s the real deal,” the employee said. “It’s no longer a rumor. They have targeted Polk Center for closure.”
According to the release from DHS, the closure reflects the Wolf Administration’s work to serve more people in the community, reduce reliance on institutional care and improve access to home- and community-based services so every Pennsylvania can live an everyday life.
“Over the past 120 years, thousands of Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities lived some or all their lives in Polk and White Haven state centers,” Miller said. “We recognize their history and commend the work that center staff has done to support these individuals and their families, but we also must commit to a future that truly includes individuals with disabilities and offers them an everyday life as fully integrated members of our communities.
“Having an intellectual disability does not mean a person is incapable of making decisions, contributing to their community, or exploring lifelong learning opportunities. Community-based settings honor the inherent value of every person and empower individuals to choose the direction of their own lives.”
James, however, isn’t buying that.
“I just don’t believe the level of care, physically or emotionally, they will receive (in the future) is like what they are getting now,” James said. “It will be far less. I don’t care (what DHS) says, it will be far less. It just won’t measure up to the excellent care they are getting now. I am deeply disturbed by the decision, and I am just plain mad about it.”
The DHS release said that closing the Polk State Center will also have a benefit for taxpayers.
“As the state centers’ censuses have declined, the annual average cost of care per resident at Polk and White Haven is now $409,794.00 and $434,821.00 respectively,” the release said. “Community-based care typically comes with a smaller price tag.”
Witherup said if those numbers are true it’s staggering.
“It (the release from DHS) is so self-serving I can’t believe it,” Witherup said. “If the cost is $409,000.00 per patient, if that doesn’t show how inept the whole state government is, I don’t know what does.”
Polk State Center currently serves around 194 residents, and while the Commonwealth is saying it will take a three-year period to close the facility, the employee of the Center who spoke to exploreVenango doesn’t think that is realistic.
“That is an unrealistic target,” the employee said. “One hundred ninety-four people live there. The state has a hard enough time finding decent homes for people now.”
James said if he has anything to do with it, this isn’t the last people will hear from him on this matter.
“I plan to stick close to this issue to try to get it reversed,” James said. “That is what needs to happen. This effects over 1,100 employees when you take into consideration the White Haven State Center.”
Venango County Commissioner Tim Brooks, while “surprised” and “disappointed” by the announcement, is fearful that nothing will be able to be changed.
“The individual who called our office to let us know about the closing a half-hour before the announcement was made, said that once an announcement is made, there usually are no changes,” Brooks said. “Of course we want to fight this, and, of course, we believe it is not appropriate.”
According to Brooks, several years ago the Commonwealth asked the County what it would do with Polk State Center if it stopped being a care facility.
“At the time, we said we believed it should be exactly what it is,” Brooks said. “It should be for the care of people who need it.”
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