As part of Governor Tom Corbett’s proposed 2013-2014 budget, about half of the state’s sixty health centers will be shuttering, consolidating or morphing. Lay-offs of personnel are also part of the proposal; which state officials say is an effort to modernize Pennsylvania’s public health services and save money.
Michael Wolf, Acting Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health says this move would be a way to deliver services to people who can’t get to the health centers.
State Health centers provide vaccinations, STD testing, and lead poisoning testing among other things. By a law passed in 1996, they must be in every county.
“The people who we serve are primarily uninsured and underinsured and those folks can't get to us or just might struggle to find us because of the locations that we’re in. We’re also seeing very little traffic that we would refer to as ‘walk in traffic,” he said.
The 60 centers cost about 20 million a year to run. The closures would save the state around 3.4 million.
But workers at those centers say consolidating and shuttering centers and laying off staff will do the exact opposite.
Joe Donahue is a community health nurse in Westmoreland County and works for the division of school health. He oversees more than 800 school health nurses in 11 southwestern Pennsylvania counties.
Donahue said he has been alerted that five of the ten health centers in this region will be closed. The ones slated to close and co-locate are in Armstrong, Beaver, Somerset, Monessen and Greene Counties. Allegheny County doesn’t have a center.
“We do understand that there are economic constraints that there are nowadays but we provide public service, that’s what public or community health nursing is all about,” he said.
Donahue worries that not having a brick and mortar presence in counties will reduce residents' access to health care.
Donahue worries children who have been exposed to lead poisoning and adults with TB exposure will no longer be able to get home health visits by nurses.
The state's answer
“The saddest part is its probably going to disproportionately affect some of our socially, economically disadvantaged folks,” he said.
Wolf says the health centers, established in the 1980s do not reflect the changes in health care and society of the last 30 years. For one – nurses no longer have to be tethered to a landline.
Wolf said one of the driving forces was that 70 to 77 percent of their operational funds go to leases at the state health centers and not to services. He says they will save about a million dollars based on this. He says some centers have heavy walk-in traffic and some other centers they are lucky to have one walk-in client per week.
He said the nurses will still work in those counties – visiting senior centers or homeless shelters for example. He cited the success the Department of Health had at the farm show in Harrisburg.
“In seven days we did over 3700 flu immunizations. Compared to the three health centers surrounding Harrisburg where we did 90 vaccinations in 30 days within those three centers,” he said.
Donahue says that isn’t a fair comparison, because certain services they need in the county departments have not been available to them the last couple years.