Ebensburg Center

The Ebensburg Center, shown on Sept. 20,2017.

HARRISBURG – Lawmakers warned on Tuesday that, if the state doesn’t take steps to begin making fuller use of its four large centers to care for those with developmental disabilities, the facilities will eventually hit a “death spiral” where the cost to operate them becomes too burdensome to continue.

There are about 700 residents in the four state centers for the care of people with mental disabilities in Ebensburg; White Haven in Luzerne County; Selinsgrove in Snyder County; and Polk in Venango County. 

The facilities employ a total of more than 2,600 workers.

Advocates and relatives of people receiving care in those facilities said that, as the state has leaned more on group homes and other community-based settings for those with mental disabilities, no new residents have moved into the state centers in years.

As a result, there are hundreds of beds available that the state could use to provide care for people who need it, said state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, the chairman of the House Human Services Committee, who convened a hearing on the issue Tuesday morning.

DiGirolamo said that the decision about where and how people with disabilities should receive care should be made by relatives of the individual, “not by someone sitting in an office in Harrisburg or someplace else.”

But critics of the state centers say that there is no place for them at all and that the state should move to close them.

Last year, the state closed the Hamburg State Center, a facility in Berks County.

“That was very successful. There are people who are now thriving in the community. Some have jobs,” said Sherri Landis, executive director of The Arc of Pennsylvania. “That was done correctly. We feel like the same course of action should be taken with the other state centers.”

Pennsylvania state centers (population and employment)

Name of center Number of residents Number of workers
Ebensburg Center (Cambria County) 206 711
White Haven Center (Luzerne County) 116 423
Selinsgrove Center (Snyder County) 212 772
Polk Center (Venango County) 197 737
(Source: Department of Human Services)

DiGirolamo said that his committee will be looking to get clearer explanations from the Department of Human Services about whether the facilities can be put to more use.

Landis said that she hopes the Human Services committee holds another hearing to allow critics of the state centers to weigh in.

The facilities have repeatedly been targeted by critics who say they have outlived their usefulness. Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania in 2009 sued to force the state to close the facilities. That lawsuit was eventually settled with the state agreeing to move anyone who didn’t want to be in a state center into another living arrangement.

In 2017, state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, introduced legislation that would have closed the state centers. Benninghoff introduced his proposal after the state announced plans to close the Hamburg State Center.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the community-based system of supports is a superior alternative to institutional settings. So why is Pennsylvania only planning to close one of the five state centers?” Benninghoff questioned in a memo seeking support for closing for the other four centers.

His legislation died in committee. But it prompted supporters of the other four centers to gather more than 10,000 signatures on petitions expressing support for the facilities. That petition was presented to DiGirolamo on Tuesday.

He said that while the legislation calling for the closure of the other centers has not been reintroduced yet in 2019, the concerns of supporters of the facilities remain valid.

As no residents have been added, the population in the centers has dwindled. That creates a “self-fulfilling prophesy,” said state Rep. Mike Jones, R-York, who added that the facilities will eventually enter a “death spiral” where it becomes impossible to justify the cost to operate the facilities based on the economies of scale.

The lawmakers spoke after listening to two hours of testimony from relatives of people living in the facilities and other experts who said the centers provide a needed service.

In addition to the 731 people living in the four state centers, there are now 13,000 people with disabilities waiting for the state to provide funding for their care.

There are about 12,000 people with mental disabilities receiving care in group home settings in the state.

Susan Jennings, whose son lives in the White Haven state center, said that advocates who argue for closing the state centers compare them to outdated images of institutions were residents were “warehoused.”

The state centers now function much more like hospitals and provide a level of care that can’t be duplicated in group homes, she said.

The suggestion that everyone can receive appropriate care in a group home or other community-based setting “is a simple solution to a complex problem,” said Hugo Dwyer, executive director of Voice of Reason, a New York-based organization.

Dwyer said that the state allows senior citizens to live in nursing homes and many of them now provide specialized care units for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

“But not so for people with intellectual developmental disabilities. No, they must be in the least restrictive environment,” he said. “They must integrate with non-disabled people in the community because we have been told that’s what they want.”

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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