WellSpan Philhaven closure in Harrisburg leaves autistic children without care
Owen Wagner, left, smiles as he plays Mario Kart next to his mom, Gerren Wagner. (Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health)
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify where families are losing services and to note a plan to sell the building to another provider.
(Harrisburg) — Like many kids, Owen Wagner loves video games and relaxing at home with his family. And, like roughly 1,200 other people in Dauphin County, Owen has a diagnosis of autism.
“Autism affects him in a way that makes it really difficult to communicate with people and to express his thoughts and emotions,” said his mom, Gerren Wagner. “Especially when he gets frustrated.”
The 9-year-old is about to enter the fourth grade at West Hanover Elementary. With WellSpan Philhaven closing its Harrisburg location, he is one of about 200 children and teens losing behavioral health services from Philhaven.
WellSpan says it’s helping families find new service providers, but with a shortage of certified therapists in the region, some families say no one is available to fill the gap.
The York County-based health system acquired the Philhaven behavioral health system in 2016. WellSpan has said it wants to focus on counties where it already has a strong hospital and primary care network. So, it decided to shutter the facility on Herr Street in Harrisburg. It’s re-locating or laying off the employees, and sent out letters to people who receive services there.
Gerren Wagner got one of those letters, which lists six other service providers.
“All of these services are either full, not accepting new clients or don’t do ABA,” Wagner said.
For Owen, his care involves a type of therapy called applied behavior analysis, which has helped Owen to talk, read and learn — essential tasks if he’s ever going to have a shot at living on his own.
Owen’s therapy is guided by a certified therapist and implemented by a support professional who goes to school with him.
“Those two people are the most crucial people in his life right now, and we’re not going to be able to have them after August 16th,” Gerren said.
This is where some people say other factors are also preventing progress in Pennsylvania. Cheryl Tierney-Aves is a pediatrician at Penn State Health in Hershey. She never meant to become an advocate to change state laws around applied behavior analysis, but when she moved to Pa. she was stunned to learn how hard it was to find anyone qualified to do the work.
“There is a shortage in Pa. because we have a system, unfortunately, that isn’t set up to make it desirable to be a behavior analyst in our state,” Tierney-Aves said.
Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that does not recognize the title “applied behavior analyst,” Tierney-Aves said. Instead, it’s developed its own system of names and titles and rules. That is resulting in certified therapists choosing other states instead
The problems caused by the Philhaven location closing is devastating for families around Harrisburg, Tierney-Aves said.
For Gerren Wagner and her family, it’s going to come down to spending a lot more money.
“So we’re probably going to go to a private service provider that has openings for kids, but we’re going to pay out of pocket for co-pays and deductibles and everything else we don’t have in our budget,” Wagner said.
In an email, WellSpan said it’s working to help patients transfer their care by reaching out to providers who may be willing to see them. So far, about 80 percent have either transferred to or been accepted by another provider, WellSpan said.
Wagner said families are talking on Facebook and hoping for a miracle. But they don’t expect one.
“We feel marginalized,” she said, adding that, as families of children with autism, that’s not a new feeling.
As a note of disclosure, Transforming Health receives financial support from WellSpan Health.
Brett Sholtis was a health reporter for WITF/Transforming Health until early 2023. Sholtis is the 2021-2022 Reveal Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grantee for Mental Health Investigative Journalism with the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. His award-winning work on problem areas in mental health policy and policing helped to get a woman moved from a county jail to a psychiatric facility. Sholtis is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard Kosovo campaign veteran.