Mifflin, Perry counties may lose health centers, merge with Juniata

LEWISTOWN – Residents of Mifflin County may lose access to health care provided by the state health center, in Lewistown, if Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2013-14 budget is approved.

The Mifflin County center is one of 26 Pennsylvania state health centers that will close, pending state budget approval by the General Assembly come June, said Aimee Tysarczyk, press secretary and director of communications for the Department of Health. Currently, there are 60 health centers serving communities throughout the state.

Specifically, the state budget uses the term “co-locating,” meaning that when a center closes, the services previously offered there will merge with a neighboring county’s center. Linda Allen, nurse at Juniata County State Health Center, confirmed that both Mifflin County and Perry County centers would merge with Juniata, though she declined from giving further comment.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the decision to close almost half of the state’s health centers was based on data analysis that revealed the following: 77 percent of operational funds are used to pay for leases and not for services; state health centers have a limited number of walk-in clients; and many clients have transportation issues and cannot get to a center or find one.

“The (current) system is based on an outdated model from the 1980s,” Tysarczyk said. “The goal of the modernization plan is to mobilize staff. Staff will be going out to areas where people live and work versus having them come to us and we know the model is more effective this way.”

For example, Tysarczyk said, by going into the community and serving locals during the Farm Show, the Department of Health was able to give more than 3,700 flu shots in a week compared to the 91 shots collectively given by the Dauphin, Franklin and Lebanon state health centers.

“We want to be at community events and centers, fire halls and churches,” Tysarczyk said. “We want to make it easier for people to find us and go to places where there is the greatest need.”

However, according to SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, a union protecting more than 23,000 health care workers in Pennsylvania, any closings of state health care centers is in violation of P.A. Act 87 which was passed in 1996.

Act 87 states that the Department of Health must “provide at a minimum those public health services in effect as of July 1, 1995…” and must not “reduce the scope of services currently provided nor reduce the number of centers.”

“Act 87 specifically states not to close anymore health centers,” said Patty Harris, nurse of Perry County health center, in New Port, and member of SEIU Healthcare union. “There’s no hospital or urgent care center in the area which makes our services even more important to the community.”

The health centers provide immunizations, treatment for animal bites, treatment for tuberculosis and monitor for local diseases or infectious outbreaks, Harris said. Each health center also participates in an extensive amount of community outreach to provide area residents with educational activities involving personal health and treatment information, she added.

“We are very much on top of things and are constantly monitoring local health conditions,” Harris said. “There have been numerous outbreaks over the years including measles, whooping cough and meningitis that the state health center was the first to address.”

Marshall Deasy, an infectious disease and epidemiology program specialist with the Department of Health refers to state health center nurses as the eyes and ears of the department, alerting the necessary authorities in the case of a possible outbreak. Without such constant surveillance, a simple infection can easily become a widespread issue, he added.

In response, Tysarczyk maintains that co-locating the centers would not violate Act 87, as the law specifically referred to the privatization of health centers rather than the closing of facilities. In addition, the changes would enhance Pennsylvania health care rather than limit it, she said.

“We will not be contracting out any services, nor will we be reducing the public health services we currently provide,” Tysarczyk said. “Our plan will actually increase access to public health services by mobilizing personnel into the communities. Under the reorganization, the department will continue to deliver client services in every county in which there was a state health center.”