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Wolf vetoes bill to halt closure of White Haven, Polk state centers

The state centers are set to close within three years and move about 300 people with intellectual disabilities into community based care.

By Brett Sholtis

Gov. Tom Wolf listens during a discussion about college scholarships at Carlisle High School on Feb. 5, 2020

Ed Mahon / PA Post

Gov. Tom Wolf listens during a discussion about college scholarships at Carlisle High School on Feb. 5, 2020

(Harrisburg) — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed a bill that would halt the closure of Polk and White Haven state centers for people with intellectual disabilities. 

The legislation, which passed in the state House and Senate, calls for a five-year moratorium on the state’s plan to shutter White Haven and Polk within three years. 

In a news release, Wolf said Senate Bill 906 goes against the state’s decades-long push to wind down institutional care and move people into residential settings. 

“Individuals with disabilities should be offered an everyday life as fully integrated members of our communities,” Wolf said. “My goal is to serve more individuals in the community, reduce reliance on institutional care, and improve access to home and community-based services.”

Wolf said the state centers provide inferior care to community-based care. And, they’re costly to maintain. 

Brett Sholtis / WITF

At left, Laura Alden of Philadelphia-based Liberty Resources holds a sign opposing SB 906. during a rally at the state Capitol Tues., Jan. 7.

A statement by independent state Sen. John Yudichak of Luzerne County,  who sponsored the bill, says he and other Republican state senate co-sponsors are “profoundly disappointed” by Wolf’s decision to veto the bill, which had bipartisan support. 

“The Administration’s decision to close White Haven and Polk State Centers ignores the voices of families and mounting data that underscores the shortcomings of limiting choices on how best to serve individuals with intellectual disabilities,” Yudichak said. “Furthermore, the Governor’s veto of Senate Bill 906 is devastating for the family members, the dedicated employees and the individuals with intellectual disabilities who call White Haven and Polk State Centers home.”

White Haven state center in Luzerne County employs 400 while caring for 112 people, according to Bill Hill, union president and maintenance worker there. 

Many of those people have some of the most severe disabilities and have lived at White Haven for most of their lives, and have become close friends with other residents and staff, Hill said.  

Though they don’t live in residential housing, they are out in the community on a daily basis, and have access to on-campus amenities like a gym and swimming pool that are tailored to their needs, he said. 

“They go out into our community. They vote. They do everything that you and me do everyday,” Hill said. 

The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 28-21 and the House 139-55. With such support, it remains possible that the state legislature could override the veto with a two-thirds vote. That is something that hasn’t happened during Wolf’s time in office.

State house GOP spokesman Mike Straub said the house is considering whether a veto override “is in the best interest of Pennsylvanians.” 

“The supporters of this bill come from every corner of the state and both sides of the political aisle,” Straub said in an email. “It is not an argument against community based care as the Governor suggests, but instead the bill is a five year pause to ensure families, patients, caretakers and clinicians are all heard from to ensure every aspect of the lives impacted by a closure are considered before another state center is shut for good.”

Brett Sholtis
Brett Sholtis

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.

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