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Governor vetoes bill to keep 2 institutions for disabled

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf followed through Wednesday on his threat to veto legislation designed to prevent his administration from closing two state centers for the intellectually disabled that house about 300 people.

The bill, Wolf said in a statement, would have continued a reliance on institutionalization and did not meet his goals for serving more disabled people through community services, where he said they have better and more integrated lives.

The bill emerged after Wolf’s announcement in August that he would close White Haven in northeastern Pennsylvania and Polk in northwestern Pennsylvania, continuing a decades-old trend away from institutional care.

The bill passed the Republican-controlled Legislature and would have prevented a governor from closing any of Pennsylvania’s four remaining state centers for at least five years, and then only with approval from an independent task force.

The closings were fought by employees and family members of the centers’ residents, who also filed a lawsuit in federal court in an effort to block the shutdowns.

Employees and relatives say the state centers have been good for its residents, the services are comprehensive, the staff is professional and better trained and moving could be traumatic for many residents who have severe disabilities.

In community settings, they say, services are delivered by underpaid or poorly trained workers in jobs with high turnover. Medical professionals aren’t close by, leaving a 911 call as the only option during a severe behavioral episode, they say.

Wolf’s administration, however, had prominent allies, including the Arc of Pennsylvania and Disability Rights Pennsylvania.

Closing the centers could mean more money for 13,000 people on a waiting list for state aid to begin or upgrade the services they receive in community settings, whether in smaller group homes with around-the-clock care or with relatives where they receive in-home visits by care workers.

Currently, the state centers see just a trickle of new residents, normally by court order, administration officials say.

The state’s tab for services in community setting will approach $3.5 billion this fiscal year for roughly 56,000 people. White Haven and Polk cost about $130 million for about 300 residents.

Residents at White Haven and Polk, where original buildings date back more than a century, can also move to one of the two other state centers, Selinsgrove and Ebensburg, where about 400 beds are available, Wolf administration officials say.

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