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Harhai, Solobay join in SEIU health office lawsuit

| Wednesday, April 3, 2013, 1:26 a.m.
Jim Ference | The Valley Independent
Department of the Health, at the Monessen Municipal building.

A plan to close state Health Department offices in Monessen and 25 other municipalities is now the subject of a lawsuit.

State Rep. R. Ted Harhai, D-Monessen, state Sen. Timothy Solobay, D-Canonsburg, and several other lawmakers joined the State Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania in the suit filed in state Commonwealth Court against the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett.

The suit claims the administration's plan to close 26 public state health centers and eliminate 73 Department of Health positions, including 26 community health nurses, violates both Pennsylvania law and its constitution.

“We've not seen the lawsuit, but we will review it,” said Christine Cronkright, a spokeswoman for the governor's office.

Health Department spokeswoman Aimee Tysarczyk said, “We are still in the process of the reviewing the suit.”

The Department of Health office in Monessen is among those targeted for closure to save money.

Located at the Monessen Municipal Complex, the office has been in the city since 1971. Prior to that, the office was in Charleroi.

The state pays $2,184 per month rent, according to Monessen 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.

The lawsuit alleges that the Corbett administration's plan to shutter the health centers and furlough 26 community health nurses:

• Violates Act 87, passed in 1996, which requires the health department to “operate those public state health centers and provide, at a minimum, those public health services in effect as of July 1, 1995.”

• Violates the Pennsylvania Constitution, which bars the governor from suspending laws enacted by the Legislature. It claims Corbett and the health department lack the authority to close state health centers without approval by the Legislature.

• Violates Act 9A of 2012, in which the Legislature provided money for the 60 health centers and for the district nurse positions in the 2012-2013 state budget. Corbett's proposal to reduce funding for the health centers and staffing in his 2013-14 budget has not been approved by the General Assembly.

In February, the Corbett administration said the plan to close the health centers and relocate the nurses would occur in two phases: Phase 1 would close seven health centers on March 29. Phase 2 would close an additional 19 centers by May 31.

In addition, 73 health department employees would see their positions eliminated by March 29.

However, the administration announced in March that the furloughs will be postponed to May 3, and Phase 1 closings will be postponed to mid-May.

The lawsuit asks the court to issue a preliminary injunction pending a trial, and eventually a permanent injunction.

Harhai and Solobay said they were mislead by the administration.

Both said they believed the administration was eliminating the overhead costs of operating such offices as the one in Monessen, but that outreach services would still be provided by nurses and health professionals in those shuttered locations.

“They did not tell us the truth,” Harhai said. “They took the money and then laid off the 26 nurses. How do you improve outreach to more citizens when you cut personnel?

“This is the typical Corbett administration bait-and-switch. Once again, the people are going to have to do without.”

Harhai said he supported the original plan as laid out by the administration, because it would save money without cutting services.

“We want to reach out to more people, and if that money was made available and better utilized, that's what we would be doing. But we found out differently,” he said.

Solobay said he favored closing the buildings if it meant the state was going to “put the nurses out into the community.”

Solobay said he changed his position after learning from the SEIU that 26 nurses would be laid off.

“I said, ‘Ok, you're going to play that game. I bought into your idea of getting rid of the overhead cost, but to continue the outreach program.'”

Solobay said the goal of the suit is to save the jobs and the outreach health services.

“In my opinion, we're going to affect community health opportunities, because now we're minus all of these nurses,” Solobay said.

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or cbuckley@tribweb.com.

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