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Pa. governor to close prisons, mental health facilities in budget crunch

After announcing he’d close two prisons amid a $1.7 billion budget deficit, Gov. Tom Wolf plans to shutter residential mental health facilities


Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference at the Jordan Medical Education Center Atrium at University of Pennsylvania, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016 in Philadelphia.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

By Steve Esack
The Morning Call

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Five days after announcing he’d close two prisons amid a $1.7 billion budget deficit, Gov. Tom Wolf plans to shutter residential mental health facilities.

Department of Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas said Wednesday his agency would close Hamburg State Center in Berks County. It houses 80 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities on a 154-acre campus about 30 miles west of Allentown.

DHS also would close the 122-patient civil confinement wing of Norristown State Hospital in Montgomery County. Norristown’s civilly committed patients come directly from hospitals’ inpatient units. Those type of patients would be transitioned into community homes over the next two years under the DHS plan.

“Individuals experience a better quality of life when they receive care and support in their homes and in their communities, when possible,” Dallas said. “Today’s announcement means we are expanding opportunities for residents to live their lives to the fullest by returning to their homes and communities as contributing members of society.”

About 734 state workers would lose their jobs at the two facilities but will be offered other employment at other state-run or privately run facilities, DHS spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac said.

“The department will make every effort find at least one job placement for the employees at both Hamburg and Norristown State Hospital,” she said. “Obviously, individuals can choose not to take the opportunities.”

The Hamburg closure would save taxpayers an estimated $39 million in annual operating costs and $488,000 per patient, DHS figures show. About 353 employees would lose their jobs.

Over the last 20 years, the resident population at Pennsylvania’s state centers has decreased nearly 70 percent to 888. Closing Hamburg would mean the state would have four centers left.

The partial Norristown closure would not result in net savings, but 381 staffers would lose their jobs, Kostelac said.

“This initiative is not intended as a net savings to the commonwealth, but rather to realign spending to be better used to serve people in more appropriate, integrated settings,” she said. “It is also important to note that taking state hospital beds offline and serving more individuals in the community saves funding long-term.”

DHS operates six state hospitals with services for individuals civilly committed and criminally committed for mental illness. In the last 20 years, the state hospital population has decreased by 70 percent to 1,568.

During the partial Norristown closure, DHS would reuse some of the closed civil beds to add more forensic evaluation space for patients committed through the criminal justice system.

Lehigh County Director of Corrections Ed Sweeney referred to the Norristown closure as a double-edged sword. Some local inmates languish in county jails for months as they wait for room to open up at Norristown; their cases cannot proceed until someone can determine if they are fit to stand for trial. Making more forensic evaluation space available should cut those times down, he said.

But the loss of the civil beds will likely exacerbate the shortage of beds at private facilities. The Lehigh Valley has already witnessed a crunch on those beds since the 2010 closure of Allentown State Hospital, Sweeney said. Without enough treatment options, some will see their mental health deteriorate as they become entangled in the criminal justice system.

“There needs to be someplace where they can be taken for some more immediate triage and handling other than taking them straight to jail,” Sweeney said.

In recent weeks, some Republican lawmakers, including state Sen.Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, have recommended closing DHS facilities to save money, arguing it’s cheaper and more humane for the private or nonprofit sectors to treat patients in community settings.

On Thursday, Browne’s Senate Appropriations office released statistics that show the average cost in state and federal taxes for any Norristown patient is $340,524. It pegged Hamburg costs at $480,756.

On Feb. 7, Wolf will outline, in his budget address, his spending plans for the 2017-18 fiscal year that begins July 1. The current budget is estimated to be about $604 million short of tax revenue necessary to cover the $31.6 billion spending plan. That hole is expected to grow without tax increases and budget cuts.

Wolf, up for re-election in 2018, said he would not ask lawmakers to raise sales and income taxes to cover the holes. The Legislature rejected similar tax hike requests in the last two budget negotiations.

Last Friday, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced his agency would close two state prisons from a list of five: Frackville in Schuylkill County, and facilities in Mercer, Luzerne, Wayne and Allegheny counties. Inmate population has dropped more than 3 percent to 49,858 since 2011.

The Department of Corrections plan also calls for halving the state’s community corrections population to 1,500. Those two plans would save Corrections an estimated $129 million.

Lawmakers have not taken kindly to Wolf’s prison plans in their communities.

“We believe if the administration is seeking cost savings, they should be looking at our corrections system as a whole and all institutions should be under review; not a select handful,” Republican Sen. David G. Argall said in a joint statement with state Reps. Neal Goodman, a Democrat, and Jerry Knowles and Mike Tobash, both Republicans.

Three Senate committees will hold a joint hearing about the prison closings on Jan. 23 in the Capitol.

Morning Call reporter Tom Shortell contributed to this story.