The Polk Center

The Polk Center, in Venango County in northwest Pennsylvania, is currently home to nearly 200 people with disabilities, and is set to close by 2022. — PENNSYLVANIA CAPITAL-STAR PHOTO/STEPHEN CARUSO

Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to veto a bill that would overturn his administration’s decision to shutter two state facilities that care for the intellectually disabled.

Wolf first made the promise in a private Nov. 19 letter to the Philadelphia chapter of ADAPT, a disability rights group, and it was reiterated by a spokesperson Tuesday.

“Further investment and transition to community-based care should be the priority for state government,” administration spokesman J.J. Abbott said in an email. “Transitioning from institutionalization will also create more available funding for community-based care.”

The veto promise caps a confusing fracas that has split parties, organized labor, and Wolf over the future of care for people with disabilities.

Wolf announced over the summer that two centers — White Haven, south of Wilkes-Barre in Luzerne County, and Polk, north of Pittsburgh in Venango County — would shutter by 2022. They are currently home to 195 residents, and employ nearly 1,173, mostly union, employees.

A proposal, which purposely links the closings to a separate, underfunded state disability program, passed the Senate with little fanfare in November by a near-unanimous vote.

It’s received strong backing from rural lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, near the affected facilities. The public sector unions that represent the employees — such as AFSCME and SEIU — are also putting their shoulder into the effort.

But at least in the House, most Democrats have so far stood by Wolf, while Republicans, skeptical of social spending, haven’t shown an appetite to continue funding an expensive program.

Not without begging

The proposal would not let the state close any of the four remaining centers until it eliminates a 13,000-deep waitlist for disability community services.

The program, known as the Community Waiver Program, lets people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, such as autism or Down syndrome, receive in-home care.

Sometimes these are individuals with no caretaker at all after the death of a parent.

Often, this is in the form of an aide, according to Sheli Stasko, a Lehigh Valley resident and director of the Waiting List Campaign, which advocates for more disability service funding.

For example, her 42-year old son, John, has Down syndrome. Over the years, Stasko said John has tried several programs to keep him occupied and safe during the day when Stasko is busy — but most didn’t work.

“He did go to a sheltered workshop,” she said, referring to programs that separately employ people with disabilities.

“He was supposed to go for two weeks. He lasted three days, and he refused to get up and get dressed,” Stasko told the Capital-Star. “And that’s when I decided, ‘Goshdarnit it’s time for a change.’”

Stasko got her son into the waiver program when he was 21. Money never reaches her or John’s pockets. Instead, it directly pays for an aide to accompany John throughout his busy weekly schedule. That includes a shifts at Ace Hardware, a food bank, and volunteering at churches.

During all of this, John’s support person is at his side. They’ve even learned some basic sign language to communicate, since John has difficulty hearing and speaking.

“[The support person] is providing as much as protection he needs without being overwhelming,” she said.

Pennsylvania has spent $284 million since 2007 to take 14,500 people off the waiting list, according to the Department of Human Services. That’s “not without a lot of begging every year,” Stasko said.

Completely eliminating the waiting list has an even higher price tag. According to a Senate analysis, it’ll cost $920 million in state funding to give the 13,000 people on the waiting list the care they need.

The state now spends $110 million to keep the four centers open. But they serve just 716, mostly elderly patients, with complicated conditions. The per-person cost of community care is about half of the cost of institutional care, according to the Senate analysis.

New admissions to the facilities, which typically number in the single digits each year, require a judge’s approval.

Individuals leaving the closing state centers will not be added to the waitlist if they want community care.

Backers of Polk and White Haven, such as facility employees’ unions, argue that more families could take advantage of the centers.

But research suggests that community-care creates better outcomes for people with disabilities.

And Stasko, for example, signed paperwork three separate times to keep John out of an institution.

“[Unions are] protecting their jobs, I get it,” Stasko said. “My husband worked 20 years for a job and suddenly they said ‘whoopsie, we’re taking your job away.’”

“The problem is, what they want to give ya, you don’t want,” she added.

Building a safety net

The proposal to block Wolf’s decision was passed by the House Health Committee Tuesday.

The committee had previously passed a similar version in October by a nine-vote margin votes. The new version passed by a margin of just one vote.

“I am a very strong believe that people with severe disabilities, there should be a safety net,” Health Committee Chairwoman Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, told the Capital-Star before the vote. She supports the proposal.

But two of her Republican colleagues voted against her, while two Democrats flipped to “no,” making for a tight vote.

One GOP flip was Rep. Jerry Knowles, of Schuylkill county. His district includes Hamburg, Pa., where a state center closed on Wolf’s orders in 2018.

At the time, there were concerns expressed by the residents, their families, and employees.

“It was a smooth transition,” Knowles said. “I was pleased and shocked at how well it went.”

The 300 affected workers at the center in Knowles’ district were promised a different public job, whether in a welfare office or a prison, if they wanted one. The same promise was made to the employees at White Haven and Polk.

In fact, one union, which represents a small fraction of Polk and White Haven’s employees, is arguing that the employees should keep their same jobs helping the disabled even as the buildings themselves shutter.

In a letter obtained by the Capital-Star, SEIU-HealthCare, which represents nurses and other health care employees in Pennsylvania, said it was opposing the shutdown moratorium.

Matt Yarnell, the union’s president, said he wanted to see the whole home community care field run by the state, similar to how New York or Connecticut provide care.

The families and workers backing state facilities often cite the lower quality of private care to argue that the centers should stay open.

But Yarnell said private care, which is still subsidized by public dollars, only suffers because the workers are treated poorly and have a high turnover rate.

“Just dumping people into the private sector, which is frankly underfunded, is not the best recipe,” Yarnell told the Capital-Star.

Another lawmaker who changed their vote was progressive Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny.

In its current form, the bill preserves the status quo, Innamorato said.

Discussions about how to close state centers can only begin when the waiting list is empty. And the millions needed to empty the list are nowhere in sight, she said.

“If we are dedicated to caring for these individuals and saying they have value in our society, we need to put up the money that it actually takes to provide adequate care for these individuals,” Innamorato said.

Veto-proof

The stakes for the state centers’ allies are already high — they want to show Wolf they could beat a veto.

If it were put to a vote before the full House, Rep. Lee James, a Venango Republican who represents Polk, said he believes the bill would pass.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘veto-proof’ lightly, but I believe we will have something in the neighborhood” of the two-thirds majority needed to override Wolf, James added.

But a vote can only happen if his own leadership buys in.

In 2017, after Wolf announced the closing of the Hamburg center, House Republican Whip Kerry Benninghoff, of Centre County, and the caucus’s third in command, introduced legislation to close every state center for the disabled.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the community-based system of supports is a superior alternative to institutional settings,” Benninghoff said in a memo at the time. “So why is Pennsylvania only planning to close one of the five state centers?”

The process would be complete by 2023, and any saved dollars would go to help people with disabilities enter the workforce, or go to the community waiver program.

The proposal was co-sponsored by just a handful of lawmakers, including some of the most influential Republicans — such as House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, and Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor. It went nowhere.

Stephen Caruso is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.

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