HARRISBURG -- The state must temporarily halt a plan to consolidate and close almost half of its rural health centers, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The court issued a temporary injunction blocking the state from taking any further action -- several health centers, including one in Beaver County, have already been closed -- pending a full hearing.
The Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit over the closures in April, saying the administration did not have the authority to close the centers; the union cited a state law that said approval from the Legislature is needed for such closures.
Several Democratic legislators were also plaintiffs in the suit.
A Commonwealth Court judge in May denied an injunction that would have halted the closings, but Wednesday's ruling granted that request.
Union officials said they believe the order means the state should reopen already shuttered centers in Carbon, Beaver and Mifflin counties, but a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said the agency was still evaluating the impact of the court's order.
"We are awaiting further guidance regarding the scope of the order," said Aimee Tysarczyk, a department spokeswoman.
Among the centers originally slated to be closed and consolidated: centers in Beaver and Armstrong counties will close to merge with a Butler County health center; Greene County's center will be consolidated with the Washington County health center; and the Monessen State Health Center in Westmoreland County will close to be consolidated with the Westmoreland County health center in Greensburg, according to union officials.
The Department of Health has said its plan would allow community health nurses to be more mobile and deliver services more directly to the community.
"We will continue to fully defend our case," Ms. Tysarczyk said. "We believe this modernization plan allows the department to improve and expand services, especially to the underserved and underinsured citizens of Pennsylvania."
Staff at the health centers test for sexually transmitted diseases, perform tuberculosis tests, give immunizations, investigate outbreaks of food-borne illness and educate the public about health issues, among other duties.
"It's by no means over with yet," said Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "But at least it gives us a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel."
If the two health clinics in his district are closed, Mr. Solobay believes, general health and well-being will decline and the number of visits to the emergency room will rise.
$3.4 million in savings by closing nearly 30 health centers in rural areas across the state and eliminating 27 nursing jobs.
Megan Rogers, an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association, contributed. Kate Giammarise: email@example.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.