Forensic closure at WSH on track
But effort continues on several fronts to derail decision
August 19, 2010
The efforts of the board of trustees, the correctional officers union, and a state representative have not swayed state decision-makers from closing the Warren State Hospital Forensic Unit.
As of Wednesday, the schedule for the closing of the unit is unchanged.
“The consolidation of the forensic unit is moving forward as planned and remains on track to be completed by the end of October,” Department of Public Welfare Director of Communications Michael Race said.
In a decision announced to employees on Aug. 2, the unit will close and the patients will be moved to a forensic unit at Torrance State Hospital in Westmoreland County.
There were 25 patients being treated in the Warren unit at the time of the announcement.
Forensic units allow for the treatment of people who are under criminal detention with the goal of stabilizing disorders and returning the patients to the criminal justice system.
The forensic unit at Warren State Hospital is the smallest of three in the state; The 25 patients came from 14 counties.
Torrance, which currently houses 64 patients and has capacity for 75, will be expanded to accommodate the consolidation.
Public hearings are not mandated prior to the closure of the unit, according to Race.
“No public hearings are legally required or scheduled,” he said. “DPW officials have been in routine contact with PSCOA representatives and any concerned elected officials regarding the consolidation plans. We will continue to discuss any emerging issues with them or any other concerned parties as the consolidation moves forward.”
The hospital’s board of trustees has already made known its immediate wishes, calling the decision “heavy-handed.”
“We respectfully request that this decision to close the forensic unit at Warren State Hospital be postponed until a comprehensive analysis can be completed,” the board members wrote in a letter to Gov. Ed Rendell and copied to Acting DPW Secretary Harriet Dichter, Lt. Gov. Joe Scarnati, State Sen. Mary Jo White, State Rep. Kathy Rapp, the Warren County Commissioners, and Hospital CEO Charlotte Uber. “We are disappointed by the lack of transparency and arbitrary tactics used in this closure of the forensic unit at Warren State Hospital.”
The trustees said they should have been involved in the decision. “The role of the advisory board is to provide counsel and input to the hospital management and, by extension, the larger Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services of DPW,” according to the letter. “We would certainly have been willing to participate in discussion and give fair hearing to the DPW management analysis in this matter.”
Rapp (R-65th) needs no prompting from her constituents.
“I’m again embroiled in this battle,” Rapp said Wednesday. “I’m trying to do what I can to support our employees at the forensic unit.”
Those efforts include working with the board of trustees, the PSCOA locally and in Harrisburg, preparing information and sending it to Attorney General Tom Corbett, and working with Dichter.
Much of the argument for the consolidation is that it will save the state $2.3 million per year.
Rapp disputes that.
“This is just shifting costs,” she said. “That building will still be maintained. The grounds will still be maintained.”
In a letter to Dichter was a request for a full accounting of the anticipated savings, Rapp said.
The trustees would also like to see the data. They also object to finances being the only reason used to justify the closure, arguing the quality of care should have been a major factor.
Torrance will have to add staff to handle the influx of patients, and some of that hiring is already underway.
“They’ve already hired 28 new employees at Torrance while we’re in a hiring freeze,” Rapp said. “DPW is full-steam ahead.”
She said those new hires do not include any current Warren State Hospital employees.
The department continues to work with “affected staff at the unit to assist them in obtaining other state employment,” Race said.
Of the 41 employees of the unit, about 30 are represented by Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association (PSCOA) Local SI Warren, according to union officials.
Officials with PSCOA have been gathering signatures on petitions and passing out information.
Among the materials passed out by PSCOA is contact information for state legislators.
Rapp said PSCOA is standing its ground. “They are working very hard on their end to reverse this,” she said.
Rapp said she has support among her colleagues, but, since the issue is not a legislative one, it may not help.
“Unfortunately this is an administrative decision,” she said. When Rapp opposed plans to privatize the forensic unit a few years ago, “they claimed that I was overstepping. I reminded them this is the 65th legislative district. These are the constituents that I am representing.”
“I’m trying to do what I can to support our employees at the forensic unit,” she said. “This will be a big loss to Warren County, about $2 million in salaries alone if we lose those employees.”
Others among those she is working for, she said, are some of “Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens — people with disabilities.”
The hospital currently serves 44 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, she said.
“Just 30 years ago there were 30 state hospitals and eight corrections facilities,” she said. “Now it’s just the opposite. There are 30 corrections facilities and eight state hospitals.”
“There is plentiful research to indicate that prisons are overcrowded and the incidence of mental illness on the rise,” according to the trustees’ letter. “In light of this, DPW is closing the only forensic unit in northwest PA and reducing the number of such units from three down to two statewide?!”