James, House Members Question Wolf’s Call to Close Polk Center

| October 22, 2019

HARRISBURG, Pa. – In continued defense of residents at two of the state’s intermediate care facilities, Rep. Lee James (R-Venango/Butler) voiced his concerns about the governor’s mandated closure of Polk and White Haven state centers at a hearing held by the House Health and Human Services committees.

Department of Human Services (DHS) Secretary Teresa Miller, who Gov. Tom Wolf used to call for the closure of both centers, did not participate in the hearing. Kristin Ahrens, deputy secretary for DHS’s Office of Developmental Programs, appeared in her absence.

Wolf initially called for the closures in August, which generated immediate concern for residents by their families, the community and the caregivers who serve them. Primarily, the fear is that there aren’t sufficient resources to provide the level of care needed. The closures would also result in the loss of nearly 1,200 jobs.

To quantify the community’s opposition in hopes of stopping the planned closures, James created a petition that people could digitally “sign.” It has more than 4,000 signatures.

“During the hearing, Ms. Ahren’s testimony, and that of others who fared well during the Hamburg closure, highlighted the personal growth that Hamburg residents enjoyed after moving to other care facilities,” James said.

“There will be some success stories, but people currently living at Polk and White Haven require different levels of care. Those with greater needs are the ones unlikely to thrive in a different environment that lacks the stability provided by caregivers who help for years and often decades.”

Buried in Miller’s testimony and unmentioned at the hearing was the fact that 16% of Hamburg residents died within the 32 months since the closure announcement. Transfer trauma, as testified by a doctor at the Senate hearing in September, has a real impact on residents, especially those who are medically fragile.

To illustrate that point, Bill Bailey, a psychological support specialist for Polk Center, cited a report from the World Health Organization stating that people who are forced out of their intermediate care facilities have an 83% higher mortality rate

“I have serious concerns about the way this is proceeding,” said Human Services Committee Chairman Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks).

“This spring, I convened a public hearing where committee members learned from family members and stakeholders about the value and necessity of residential choice for individuals with severe and profound disabilities. One of these important options is Pennsylvania State Developmental Centers. By closing two of these, we are limiting choices for families and for those with disabilities.”

Testifiers who support the planned closures noted that parents prize the opportunity for their children to be included the community. Those in opposition, including parents with children who would be impacted, explained that Polk and White Haven are communities, complete with friends, family members and activities that interest residents.

“Any time an established treatment facility such as Polk or White Haven is shut down, it greatly increases the possibility that our most vulnerable citizens with intellectual disabilities will wind up unnecessarily incarcerated, unfairly exploited or otherwise victimized in mainstream society,” said Zimmerman. “When we consider policy decisions such as this, we must also focus on the safety and well-being of all Pennsylvania citizens.”

Ahrens cited the philosophy of the Wolf administration, as well as cost, as reasons for the closures.


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