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Proposal would close remaining disability centers

The Ebensburg Center is one of five centers around Pennsylvania that would close if HB 1650 passes. (WJAC)

EBENSBURG — A bill making its way through the Pennsylvania state Legislature would close the five remaining state centers that care for people with severe mental and physical disabilities, causing hundreds of families to have to find new places for their loved ones to live.

The state centers, one of which is in Ebensburg, care for people who otherwise cannot care for themselves —particularly people who need 24/7 supervision and care.

For Mary Wills, president of the Family Organization at Ebensburg State Center, this bill would be devastating.

"Sometimes money doesn't come in to play whenever people are vulnerable and need care," Will said.

Wills said the Ebensburg Center, a sprawling campus of U.S. 22, is life-changing for people that need constant care.

"These people can't speak for themselves," she said.

She should know — her sister-in-law has lived at the Ebensburg Center for year. Without the center, she would have to live in a community group home, something Wills said just isn't good enough.

"I haven't found any that I feel I really want to move her to yet," Wills said.

Other families who reached out to a 6 News reporter Thursday afternoon had similar opinions, some saying their loved ones have lived in state centers for decades, and that pulling them out and moving them somewhere else would be life-threatening.

Susan Jenning's son Joey, diagnosed with autism and intellectual disabilities, started off in a community group home.

"His life was a traumatizing hell when he was in the community group home service system," Susan Jenning said.

Her son now lives at one of the state centers.

"And now he is happy; he is healthy; he has a community," Jenning said.

But, she's worried that if HB 1650 passes, her son will be kicked back into the community group home system.

"I'm terrified for his future," she said.

The bill was proposed by state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, a Republican who represents Bellefonte, in an attempt to save money.

Benninghoff's argument is that the state spends more than $300,000 on every individual in a state center, meaning closing these centers would be a "taxpayer win."

Families who reached out to 6 News on Thursday didn't agree, saying they believe it would be more expensive — and dangerous — to move hundreds of state center residents into community group homes.

Benninghoff's bill would expand an action taken in January by Gov. Tom Wolf, who announced the closure of the Hamburg Center, one of the five state centers in Pennsylvania.

In a statement, the governor's press secretary, J.J. Abbot, said they're working to find "community based replacements," for people who lived at the Hamburg Center.

He continued:

Our policy and legislative team is reviewing (HB 1650). Beyond the current plans, nothing further is planned.

Kait Gillis, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, also made clear that there are "no immediate plans to close any additional facilities at this time," adding that DHS hasn't analyzed HB 1650 yet.

6 News was unable to reach Benninghoff for comment.

Jenning works

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