WILKES-BARRE — The fight to keep the White Haven State Center is just beginning.
State Sen. John Yudichak on Tuesday said he plans to detail the negative impact a closure will have upon the residents of the center, the center workers, and the community of White Haven.
“We all understand that this is going to be a difficult fight to reverse a decision that is already being executed,” said Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township. “But we believe the voices of every family, every worker, and every resident in the community of White Haven should be heard.”
Last Wednesday, state Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller announced the closure of the White Haven State Center in Luzerne County and Polk State Center in Venango County.
The decision came under fire from state Rep. Gerald Mullery and the families of patients at the White Haven Center.
The closure process is expected to take about three years. Both centers are intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Following a meeting Monday at the White Haven Center with families of patients and DHS representatives, several spoke out in opposition to the closing and aired their concerns about the future of their loved ones. They were most concerned that the patients would not receive the same level of compassionate care at a group home as they have been receiving at the White Haven Center — many of the patients have been there for decades.
Yudichak said after the “distressing and abrupt announcement by the Department of Human Services last week,” the Luzerne County legislative delegation has rallied together to help save the White Haven State Center from closure.
“I met with Gregory Smith, Chairman of the White Haven State Center Board of Trustees, who offered both a family perspective as well as an insightful administrative perspective on the impact of closing the center,” Yudichak said. “Rep. (Gerald) Mullery and I met with AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), who represents most of the employees, and we will be requesting two meetings with DHS — one with the families and one with AFSCME so that their voices continue to be heard in this fight.”
In addition to the public hearing that DHS will be hosting in September, Yudichak said he spoke with Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, who he said has been helpful in working with Sen. Michelle Brooks, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
Yudichak said Brooks, R-Greenville, has committed to holding a public hearing on the decision to close White Haven State Center and Polk State Center.
Baker said the Wolf administration’s plan to close White Haven Center raises serious quality of life/quality of care issues first and foremost.
“The concerns families are expressing on behalf of their loved ones are valid and compelling,” Baker said. “Whatever someone represents about the potential advantages of community care versus institutional care, the reality is such a move will be immensely disruptive for individuals for whom the center is home.”
Baker said the other option being suggested by DHS — transferring the patients to a remaining facility — places additional hardships on the families who have already gone through a lot.
“While these and other points will be made at the required public hearing the Wolf administration holds, this is their plan,” Baker said. “Our Senate Committee is also planning a public hearing, which will put the emphasis on the individuals and groups who find this closure extremely troubling and misguided.”
Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township, said when she was informed last week of the planned closings, she formally requested the Secretary of Human Services immediately reconsider the location of the Sept. 12 hearing. It is slated to take play at Hazleton One Community Center, about 15 miles away from the White Haven Center.
“We asked that the hearing be moved to St. Patrick’s Church, located at 411 Allegheny St. in White Haven,” she said. “It is closer to the White Haven Center and is also handicapped accessible with a large parking area. Since the announcement last Wednesday, we have received a number of complaints about the Hazleton hearing location being too far away from the center.”
Toohil said she has been a longtime proponent of the White Haven Center, which has provided outstanding care to the most severely disabled members of the community for more than 60 years.
“I am heartbroken and disappointed by the crushing news that it will close, resulting in difficult, life-altering changes for the hundreds of men and women who live and work there,” Toohil said. “The center is much more than an institution. It is the only home many residents have ever known. They and their families now face uncertainty in making the transition to living situations in the community. That is why we are not going accept this decision and take every measure possible to get a reversal by the governor and Department of Human Services.”
Toohil said legislators will not sit back and let Gov. Tom Wolf close the facility without a fight.
“I adamantly refuse to remain silent on the closure of White Haven Center,” Toohil said. “The residents and families deserve to be heard, and we will continue to brainstorm every idea, including signing petitions and marches at the Capitol.”
Mullery, D-Newport Township, said the White Haven Center, “through its top-notch and dedicated employees,” has proven time and time again it is the best treatment option available for its residents.
“The vast majority of the residents have lived at the center for decades and any change, let alone one as stressful as a full-scale transfer, will be detrimental to their health and well-being,” Mullery said.
Mullery said he has spoken to several family members of residents and he has corresponded via email with others.
“They have great concern for the future care of their relatives,” he said. “They rightly fear the negative impact any move could have on the most vulnerable of all Pennsylvanians. Many have tried community-based care and have found the treatment offered at White Haven Center far exceeds that available privately.
“I remain extremely concerned for those without family who will have no say in the future of their care.”
Mullery said he and the other legislators and the family members have been told the decision has been made and the decision to close is final.
Sen. Lisa Baker, left, and State Rep. Tarah Toohil.
State Sen. John Yudichak and Rep. Gerald Mullery.
White Haven Center is being targeted for closure by the Wolf Administration.