Updated: 5:38 p.m.
The Service Employees International Union Healthcare (SEIU) Pennsylvania, along with two Democratic state senators and three state representatives filed a lawsuit against the Corbett administration over its plan to close 26 state health centers and eliminate 73 Department of Health positions.
The suit claims the plan violates state law and the Pennsylvania constitution. Specifically, the suit contends Corbett broke Act 87 (1996), which requires the state to operate public health centers, and Act 9A (2012), which set funding for the 60 health centers and district nurse positions.
The SEIU asserts that the laws cannot be revoked without legislative approval, as Pennsylvania’s constitution bars the governor from suspending legislature-enacted laws. Another unanswered question is where employees from those 26 centers will relocate.
“The only information I’ve received to date is that when relocated, I’m allowed to take my desk chair, two filing cabinets and possibly a vaccine refrigerator,” said Wyoming county nurse Cheryl McGovern.
Kevin Hefty, SEIU State Sector Vice President, said the cuts will be "putting the public unnecessarily at risk for a mere $3.4 million in savings in the budget."
“And according to the most recent data, Pennsylvania already ranks last amongst states in the number of public health workers per capita, and near the bottom in public health spending,” he said.
However, according to a 2009 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Pennsylvania spent $7,730 per person for health care, the 11th highest total in the country. In a 2011 study on health care workers, Pennsylvania had the seventh highest number of nurses, with 1,026 nurses per 100,000 people.
The first phase of these closures was to begin March 29 with 73 DOH employees and seven health centers getting eliminated. But the first phase was delayed, pushing any phase one closures and furloughs into May.
Acting Department of Health Secretary Michael Wolf said many of the positions being eliminated have become redundant and can be handled by the staff at the head office in Harrisburg.
“That is an unfortunate byproduct of a system that has not necessarily had what we believe to be a thoughtful analysis done for quite some time,” he said.
Wolf believes there will be more modernization efforts coming out of his department in the months ahead. He said many of the systems in use today were created decades ago, and what they did then and what they do now “have nothing in common with each other.”
Reacting to the direct charge that the state is in violation of Act 87, Wolf said: “Act 87 was done in the 1990s when there was an effort to privatize the work done by the Pennsylvania state health centers. In no way shape or form are we privatizing.”
He said the work that would be moved out of the centers would continue to be done with current state health nurses.
The lawsuit seeks to have the court issue a preliminary injunction order pending a trial and a permanent injunction against the plan thereafter.
The state received the lawsuit late Wednesday. Wolf said the department is in the process of analyzing it and “will be fully engaged in the process moving forward.”
He said the tactic was not a great surprise because changes to a system that has been in place for 20 or 30 years “can be a scary thing.”
“We recognize that," Wolf said. "But at the same time we believe that this is the best thing that we can be doing to serve the clients that we work with at the state health centers, and we believe that doing it from being much more mobile and having a larger presence in the community is the best thing to do at this time."
Wolf added that the department is already taking services into the community in a mobile way, and he feels that is the direction in which they should heading in the future.