State Department of Health site in Monessen marked for closure
The Department of Health office in Monessen is one of 60 in the state that will close as part of Gov. Tom Corbett's plan to save money and improve the way Pennsylvania handles public health duties.
Located at the Monessen Municipal Complex, the office has been in the city since 1971, when the building was known as the Mon Valley Community Health Center.
Prior to that, the office was in Charleroi.
The state pays $2,184 per month rent at the municipal complex, according to city Clerk Rosalie Nicksich. The lease began in April 2011 and ends May 31, 2016.
The office offers clinics for tuberculosis, immunizations and sexually transmitted diseases.
State nurses conduct educational programs in schools and investigate reportable diseases in the Mon Valley, including rabies.
State health centers do not provide primary health care services.
While there will be no office for the Department of Health nurse employed at the Monessen site, state officials said there will be a larger health service presence in the Mon Valley.
Corbett's plan would keep 34 health centers and eliminate the positions of 26 nurses who perform services handled by other agencies.
More emphasis would be placed on nurses traveling to public gatherings to administer such things as immunizations and, ultimately, serve more people, department spokeswoman Holli Senior said.
“No client will have to leave their home county to receive public health services unless the client chooses to do so because the location is more ideal,” Senior said. “This new model allows the department to take advantage of well-attended senior fairs, legislative-sponsored health expos and other community health events.”
Senior said the state will ensure that such events are regularly scheduled and in places where people can easily access the services.
“Our goal is to ensure that we are in the communities providing services where people live and work and to those who need them most,” Senior said. “And we know this model works.”
While Senior wouldn't comment on the status of the Monessen office, officials with Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania, which represents nurses and clerks, confirmed the site is among those closing.
The closures are expected to take place in two phases, starting March 29 and May 31.
SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania members are urging people to call their legislators to oppose the closures.
“We provide core public health functions, including immunizations, counseling, disaster relief, and reaching out to our local communities to meet their health concerns. Closing public health centers will especially impact rural communities,” said Sandy Deaver, a registered nurse in the south central district office.
According to SEIU, the proposed cuts appear to violate Act 87, which requires the Department of Health to “provide at a minimum those public health services in effect as of July 1, 1995.”
Joe Donahue, a school health counselor who serves school districts in the region that includes the Mon Valley, said he is concerned about the level of services for schools.
“I assist in training school nurses. We work with families and provide a constant source of support for the districts,” said Donahue, of Uniontown.
Teresa Seh, Monessen Communities That Care president, said her agency has joined with the Department of Health staff many times over the years for youth programs.
Seh is opposed to the closure.
“I don't think folks realize what the governor is trying to do and how it will impact our area,” she said. “At this time of national concern over violence, I really can't imagine reducing the free public education and hands-on support available to our schools and communities through the Department of Health.”
State Rep. Ted Harhai, D-Monessen, said that while he doesn't want to see the city lose the office, he supports the plan to expand health services.
“They are trying to put the funding out there for active services,” he said. “ ... My understanding is that it will bring more services to the area, which will be better utilized.
“That's the way it was presented to me, but the governor has a history of bait and switch. But I'm hoping that's not the case here.”
Senior said the governor's plan will benefit the community.
“We can do far better ... if we are out in the community and in places where people live and work, or where there is the greatest need,” Senior said.
The 60 health centers cost about $20 million to operate. The closures would save $3.4 million, according to the health department.
In 1996, then-Gov. Tom Ridge proposed having private companies take over the health centers — some dating back to the early 1900s — and the state public health laboratory as a way to save money.
An administration spokesman at the time said the system was a relic from the days when medical professionals made house calls, because sick people were quarantined.
Lawmakers rejected the idea amid worries over whether contractors would be aggressive in following up on public health problems.
Since then, the size of the nursing staff at the health centers has dwindled, said Marshall Deasy, a Department of Health infectious disease and epidemiology program specialist.
Deasy, a member of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, said it makes no sense to do away with central points where people can come to see a nurse, while forcing nurses to drive across counties every day either to see patients, pick up immunizations or simply get home.
The centers are well-known in their communities, and the nurses there handle such tasks as testing for HIV, administering routine vital sign tests to seniors and taking communicable disease reports from physicians, Deasy said.
“People come in here covered with lice, and they can't put their kids back into school until they deal with that. And the nurses personally help them,” Deasy added.
Stacy Wolford is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-684-2640 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.