West Kittanning health center could reopen after Pa. Supreme Court ruling
The shuttered state Department of Health office in West Kittanning might reopen in the wake of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision Thursday.
The court sided with a union that represents nurses 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 been closed and restore the level of public health services to 1995 levels.
The Butler Road-based Department of Health office was one of 60 targeted for closure under Corbett’s plan. The office closed last year.
Armstrong County Commissioner Bob Bower said he was glad to hear Corbett’s decision was reversed and described the state health centers as an asset to county residents.
“The closures were detri-mental to the health and welfare of Armstrong County residents, so to hear the decision has been reversed is a rewarding feeling,” Bower said. “The centers are a good way for residents to stay on top of health-related issues in the county.”
The state health 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.
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 April 1, 2013, to keep the centers open.
With no timeline for when the center will open, Bower said he remains weary of the centers’ fate when they reopen.
“It was closed as a cost-saving measure, so I’m afraid those same measures may continue in the future,” Bower said. “We’re going to have to be vigilant and well-informed of what’s going on in Harrisburg when it comes to state health centers to make sure they’re not closed again.”
Stacy Wolford is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-684-2640 or at [email protected]. Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303, ext. 1337, or [email protected]. The Associated Press contributed.