Lawsuit: Closures violate Act 87

LEWISTOWN – The fate of state health facilities in Mifflin and Perry counties hangs in the balance of a lawsuit filed Monday by several Democratic lawmakers and the union that represents many state workers in an effort to stop Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to close nearly half the state’s health centers.

The lawsuit, filed in the Commonwealth Court Of Pennsylvania, seeks a preliminary injunction order, pending a trial, to immediately stop the closings of the centers across Pennsylvania as well as a permanent injunction against the plan thereafter, said Kevin Hefty, vice president for the state sector of Service Employees International Union.

“Gov. Corbett’s plan to close 26 state health centers directly violates the law,” Hefty said. “We decided to take legal action to stop the closing of health centers and the furloughs of those who work with them.”

Hefty is referring to the law found in Act 87, passed in 1996, which 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.”

Basically, Hefty said, the law states that the Pennsylvania Department of Health must maintain the number of health care centers present when the act was passed as well as maintain the current level of services that communities depend upon.

“The Department of Health is making some hasty decisions without any specific plan that we have seen,” Hefty said. “If the governor wants to change the law, he needs to go through proper legislative process.”

However, Corbett and the Department of Health believe the closing of state health centers and the mobilizing of services will ultimately benefit Pennsylvania communities, said Acting Secretary of Health Michael Wolf.

“We very much believe that it’s within our scope to continue with the plan,” Wolf said. “We believe that making state health care mobile will better serve our customers and provide improved health access for communities.”

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,” said Aimee Tysarczyk, press secretary and director of communications for the Department of Health. “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.

If the mobilization plan continues, roughly 50 jobs will be lost, although that number does not include nurses that work at a state health center, said Martin Raniowski, deputy secretary of health planning and assessment. The nurses would instead be relocated to work at a centralized health care location, he said.

Linda Allen, nurse at Juniata County State Health Center, confirmed that both Mifflin County and Perry County centers would close and merge with Juniata if the governor’s plan were to move forward. She declined from giving further comment.

Specifically, primary physicians, employed as administrative consultants by the Department of Health will be eliminated from the state health care process, Raniowski said. They previously worked as a department resource when nurses needed further information, he said.

“This is not an action we take lightly and we understand that we’re affecting our colleagues lives,” Raniowski said. “The reality we’re facing, however, is that we need to reach communities in Pennsylvania that we’re unable to reach with the current system.”

According to a press release from SEIU, as a result of increasing public and legislative pressure, the Corbett Administration announced that furloughs would be postponed until May 3 and phase one of closings would be postponed until May 13.

Hearings are expected to begin within the month, Hefty said.