A Push Back

Legislation will soon be introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate aimed at delaying the Polk State Center’s closure. The Department of Human Services announced on Aug. 14 that it would close the facility, which houses people with mental disabilities, over a three-year period.

Pennsylvania State Senator Scott Hutchinson (R-21) announced Friday that legislation aimed at delaying the closure of the Polk State Center will soon be introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate.

Hutchinson, who is a co-sponsor of the bill, said the document would place a moratorium on the shuttering of the facility until a “stable safety net” can be developed for the residents there.

“The Department of Human Services is seemingly unmoved by the heartfelt appeals from the families of the residents who will be uprooted by the closure of these centers,” he said in a press release. “This move by DHS will be disruptive beyond description for those who have known no other home. That means it is incumbent on the legislature to take action to protect these vulnerable individuals.

The closure of the Polk State Center was announced on Aug. 14 by DHS. The center, along with a similar facility in White Haven, are currently planned to be closed over a three-year time period. DHS is aiming to move toward a more community-focused treatment system, rather than places like the Polk State Center, which the department considers too separated from the general public.

“There are tremendous benefits for people being part of communities and living in their own homes,” Kristin Ahrens, deputy secretary of the DHS Office of Developmental Programs, told The Herald.

Among these benefits, according to the DHS, is a greater degree of freedom for patients and a reduced cost of care for the state. In home-based care, people being cared for are kept in homes or small communal housing units that are located directly in communities, rather than in a dedicated large-scale center.

However, the closure has brought on concerns from state lawmakers and relatives of residents alike. One particular common fear is that moving people who have lived at centers such as Polk for decades could have a negative impact on their health, a condition known as transfer trauma.

“In Polk, some of those individuals have been there for a long time, and we are fearful of moving them,” said Irene McCabe, president of the Polk Center Family and Friends.

Further, many of those in opposition to the closure are worried that patients won’t be able to find the same level of care at a home-based facility as they could at a state center, where the same team of doctors and medical staff have worked with them for years.

“If you don’t work with individuals like that on a regular basis, you don’t understand how fragile they are,” Amy Cochran, whose sister lived at Polk for 54 years before dying in July, said in an interview with The Herald. “They’re at everyone’s mercy.”

However, Ahrens said there are often numerous other factors, such as advanced age, that can contribute to a patient’s health decreasing after they are moved to another facility.

“The jury is still a little bit out about that,” she said. “Most researchers don’t find evidence of transfer trauma.”

In response to claims that community-based treatment can’t give the same level of care, Ahrens said the new treatment methods already have a proven successful track record. Pennsylvania has been slowly closing all of its state centers, which once numbered 23 across the Commonwealth, over the past 50 years.

According to Ahrens, out of the 56,000 people registered for services with DHS, roughly 40,000 of them receive support in community care environments. Comparatively, fewer than 720 people receive care in state centers, according to the DHS. She said that when a center is closed, DHS works hard to find a community-based treatment home for each patient that will meet all of their needs.

“We announced this as a 36-month transition process,” Ahrens said. “This gives us time to give the due diligence (needed).”

She also pointed to the comparatively lower cost of caring for someone in a community-based environment compared to a state center as a benefit. According to Ahrens, it costs close to $410,000 per patient per year to keep someone at the Polk State Center, compared to a range of $180,000 to $270,000 per patient per year in community treatment.

However, there are also major economic concerns for the closure. According to Venango County Commissioner Vincent Witherup, the Polk State Center is among the top employers in the county.

“The thing is, the state took 700 to 800 folks out who are working at Polk right now,” Witherup said. “I’m sure in the next three years, spending habits aren’t going to be the same as they were.”

Pennsylvania State Representative Lee James (R-64) said that most of the support for the closure of the facility comes from people who aren’t aware of the economic situation in Western Pennsylvania.

“We are not quite as fortunate as the right half of the state, and in the northeast, they likely could find a way to absorb that blow,” James said.

The representative said most of the politicians in western Pennsylvania are in support of keeping Polk open, and encouraged concerned citizens to write to Gov. Wolf and his administration to show opposition to the change.

DHS is currently working on a transition plan for all of the employees at the Polk and White Haven state centers. According to Ahrens, many workers from closed state centers find jobs at other government facilities near their homes, though there is no guarantee that they’ll stay.

There is also not a current plan on what will happen to the Polk State Center once it is closed. Ahrens said the 2,000 acre property will be turned over to the Pennsylvania Department of General Services to make a determination on what will happen to the buildings that make up the center.

Should the Polk and White Haven facilities be closed, Pennsylvania will only have two state centers left. They are located in Snyder and Cambria counties.

Ray can be reached, by email, at sray@titusvilleherald.com.

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