Health center closings focus of lawsuit
The Corbett administration's plan to merge the state health centers that are currently located in 60 counties faces a challenge in state court from the SEIU Healthcare PA and several Democratic lawmakers.
The lawsuit filed last week is the latest in a series of legal challenges to Gov. Tom Corbett's policies, including the termination of the adultBasic health care program and the state voter photo identification and natural gas drilling impact fee laws.
The Health Department wants to reduce the number of centers to 34 with neighboring counties absorbing the work of 26 closed centers. It also wants to rely more on mobile health teams dispatched from regional centers to handle matters like flu immunizations at senior centers or at community events and respond to medical emergencies and outbreaks of communicable diseases such as meningitis and the H1N1 virus.
Newly appointed Health Secretary Michael Wolf cited a recent event where the department partnered with Our Lady of Hope Church in Coal Township to provide flu shots at a supper as the kind of outreach that will be emphasized.
"Our whole goal is to do a better job getting access to the community," he said.
The plan calls for moving a regional health care office from Wilkes-Barre to Scranton and moving the health center at the same Wilkes-Barre location to a site in the Hazleton area.
The health department anticipates savings of $3.4 million mainly due to less spending on office leases. The plan will lead to furloughs of 73 department employees, including 26 community health nurses. But any savings would be wiped out in the event of a major public health crisis, said SEIU officials, because it would make it more difficult to provide health care services in rural counties. Cheryl McGovern, a community health nurse at the Wyoming County health center in Tunkhannock which is slated for closure, was informed she will be relocated to the Wilkes-Barre office, whose status she said is in doubt. She questioned the practicality of trying to drive to Wyoming County to be at community events while based in Wilkes-Barre.
McGovern mentioned the importance of having public health nurses on the scene during the widespread flooding following two major storms in 2011.
One allegation in the lawsuit is that the department is trying to fast-track the center closings and furloughs without legislative approval and before a state budget for 2013-14 is enacted. At issue is the intent of a 1996 state law directing the health department to operate public health centers.
A plan to start the furloughs and a first round of center closings has been postponed until May due to pressure from lawmakers, SEIU said.
"This plan is an attempt by the Corbett administration to bypass the legislative process without proper authority," said Bill Patton, spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-33, Allegheny County.
"We believe very strongly we are on solid legal ground," said Wolf.
He said the status of leases for the health centers which expire at different times is a factor in planning.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications.)