Pa. Supreme Court decision may reopen Monessen health office
The shuttered state Department of Health office in Monessen might reopen in the wake of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision Thursday.
The court sided with a union that represents nurses Thursday and put a halt to plans by Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration to close more than a third of the state’s county-based health centers.
The court ordered the administration to stop eliminating the centers, reopen those that have already been closed and restore the level of public health services to 1995 levels.
The Monessen-based Department of Health office was one of 60 targeted for closure under Corbett’s plan. The office — located in the Monessen Municipal Complex — closed in late July 2013. At that time, one nurse was employed at the site.
The office had been in the city since 1971, when the building was known as the Mon Valley Community Health Center. Prior to that, it was in Charleroi.
The centers traditionally test for sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis, treat people with communicable diseases, provide immunizations such as flu shots, and investigate food-borne illnesses, among other things.
State nurses conducted educational programs in area schools and investigated reportable diseases in the Mon Valley, including rabies. State health centers do not provide primary health care services.
State Rep. Ted Harhai, D-Monessen, an outspoken opponent of the governor’s plan, was pleased to learn the court’s decision Thursday night.
“That is a real breath of fresh air and very good news for the Valley,” Harhai said. “Hopefully, the office will reopen in Monessen so the services are close to the people who need them.”
Harhai said the centers are well known in their communities, and the nurses there handle such tasks as testing for HIV, providing routine vital sign tests to seniors and taking communicable disease reports from physicians.
“That’s why I was against (Corbett’s) plan from the beginning,” Harhai said.
The majority opinion, by Justice Max Baer, said the Legislature has never changed a mandate in a 1996 law that the state maintain the number of health centers it had as of July 1995, when it operated 60 of them.
“While the executive branch contends that its proposed modernization plan is more cost efficient and better serves the citizens of the commonwealth, it is not for this court to opine on that policy determination,” Baer wrote.
Corbett’s administration began to close 26 centers and reorganize public health services last year as a cost-saving budget move designed to increase efficiency.
Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania Vice President Kevin Hefty said the state had closed some of the 26 — he wasn’t sure how many — and nurses were laid off or reassigned to other areas. He said it appears those nurse consultant positions will have to be restored.
“These centers provide valuable public health services to the community,” Hefty said. “They’re located in nearly every county in the commonwealth. And by closing 26 of them, those counties did not have a place to go to get their public health questions answered.”
Health Department spokeswoman Aimee Tysarczyk said the decision was being reviewed “to determine the implications to the plan moving forward,” and said officials will provide details to agency staff and the public once that review is finished.
In a lone dissent, Justice Michael Eakin said the 1996 law did not preclude closing centers, but rather required the same level of health services to be maintained.
“Times change, and it cannot be that the Legislature meant to lock the state into a series of locations in perpetuity,” Eakin wrote.
The SEIU, Department of Health nurses and several Democratic state lawmakers sued on April 1, 2013, to keep the centers open.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.