Closing of Pennsylvania health centers challenged

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HARRISBURG -- Attorneys for the commonwealth and a union representing public health nurses argued in court Tuesday over whether the state has the authority to close nearly half its state public health centers without approval of the Legislature.

The Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania says a 1996 state law forbids the administration from closing such centers without the Legislature's OK.

But the state says the law in question applied to a previous effort to privatize the centers and the legislation shouldn't be broadly construed to stop the Corbett administration's plan in this case.

A lawsuit was filed earlier this month in Commonwealth Court by the union and asks the court to halt the cuts. Several Democratic state legislators -- including Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg; Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson; and Rep. Ted Harhai, D-Westmoreland -- also are plaintiffs.

"The first time I heard the [Clinton County] center would close was when I read it in the newspaper," said Rep. Michael Hanna Sr., D-Clinton County, another plaintiff, testifying Tuesday.

The Department of Health has said the consolidations would allow nurses to be out and about in the community more to treat public health problems, rather than making clients visit the health centers. According to union officials, centers in Beaver and Armstrong counties would be closed to be consolidated with a Butler County health center; Greene County's center would be consolidated with the Washington County health center; and the Monessen State Health Center in Westmoreland County would close to be consolidated with the Westmoreland County health center in Greensburg.

Nurses in the centers perform immunizations, conduct sexually transmitted disease testing, investigate outbreaks of disease, investigate outbreaks of food-borne illness and numerous other functions, according to testimony Tuesday.

Along with several community health nurses, the court also heard from Dr. Walter Tsou, a past president of the American Public Health Association and former health commissioner of Philadelphia.

"Public health is a labor-intensive effort," said Dr. Tsou said. "You can't just push a button electronically and things will resolve themselves." Public health problems like a rabid animal or outbreak of meningitis can't be handled over the phone but involve interviewing and educating residents. "I think you have to be there -- physically -- in order to handle this correctly," he said.

Dr. Tsou said he believed the state's plan, which would furlough dozens of public health workers, would diminish Pennsylvania's capacity to respond to public health threats.

"The commonwealth already begins with the lowest number of public health workers per capita in the country -- less than even the Southern states," he said.

Judge Keith Quigley reminded both sides the case is about whether the state's executive branch has the authority to close the centers.

"Whether I think it's a good idea or a bad idea has nothing to do with this case," he said.

Judge Keith Quigley reminded both sides the case is about whether the state's executive branch has the authority to close the centers. "Whether I think it's a good idea or a bad idea has nothing to do with this case," he said.

Testimony in the case is set to continue today in Commonwealth Court.

electionspa - state - health

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com.


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