SEIU sues Pa. to block merging rural health centers

(PGH Post Gazette) A state plan to close and consolidate rural health centers will hurt public health and leave under-served, uninsured or immigrant Pennsylvanians with fewer health care options, the union representing nurses at those centers alleges.

“[The closures] will threaten an already fragile public health system in Pennsylvania,” said Kevin Hefty, Service Employees International Union vice president for the state sector.

A lawsuit filed Monday in Commonwealth Court by SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania asks the court to halt the cuts. Several Democratic state legislators, including Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg; Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson; and Rep. Ted Harhai, D-Westmoreland, also are plaintiffs in the suit.

Acting Secretary of Health Michael Wolf said Tuesday he could not comment on the lawsuit.

The litigation alleges the administration’s plan to consolidate 60 health centers into 34 is illegal, as state law requires a minimum number of health centers in the state and also requires legislative approval before any such centers can be closed.

“This is an attempt by the Corbett administration to bypass the legislative process without proper authority,” said Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Democrats, speaking on a conference call to reporters Tuesday.

According to union officials, centers in Beaver and Armstrong counties would be closed to be consolidated with a Butler County health center; Greene County’s center would be consolidated with the Washington County health center; and the Monessen State Health Center in Westmoreland County would close to be consolidated with the Westmoreland County health center in Greensburg.

Mr. Wolf said the system of centers dates to the 1970s and 1980s and it makes more sense to have nurses out and about in the community, rather than making clients come to the health centers.

“It is very much our belief that we should be going into the community,” in settings such as a soup kitchen or senior citizen facility, said Mr. Wolf. The centers target people who are uninsured or under-insured.

One community health nurse who works in Lebanon County said her health center provides services such as immunizations, chest X-rays for the uninsured, services for the Amish and treatment for tuberculosis cases among immigrants. Nurse Rosemary Birt said she believed actual savings from closing the centers would be minimal compared with the cost of controlling an outbreak of a communicable disease such as TB.

“It could take as little as twelve cases of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis to wipe out the three and a half million dollars Corbett claims we would save by closing these centers,” she said, speaking on the call to reporters Tuesday.