Acting Health Secretary Michael Wolf survived a battery of pointed questions from members of a Senate committee on his agency's decision to close one third of the state's health centers, before winning their confirmation support.
At a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, Wolf defended a decision by the Corbett administration to close 26 of the 60 state health centers, saying he believes a new approach of holding more clinics and getting nurses out into communities would help more people.
"We want to go to locations where there are people," Wolf told the committee, citing the department's efforts to hold clinics in firehalls, senior centers and other community settings.
The health centers provide immunizations, tests for sexually transmitted disease and serve as a resource for community groups, hospitals and schools on a range of health issues from helping new mothers to preventing injuries among children.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers queried Wolf on how the health department would provide more services with fewer offices and staff.
Wolf stressed it was district staff who provided support services - not nurses in the field - who would be affected by planned furloughs and that the intent of the reorganization was to cut out the middle layer and allow nurses deal directly with experts in Harrisburg.
But Sen. Judy Schwenk, a Democrat, whose Berks County district includes rural communities as well as the city of Reading, which has the highest poverty rate in the nation, was unconvinced.
The staff in district offices has expertise in various areas of public health and serve as liaisons to hospitals and schools, she said - those are the jobs would disappear.She wasn't sure calls to the health department's central office Harrisburg would be the best route to helping address community-specific issues.
"Centralization is not always the best idea," she said.
Schwenk also said she is concerned that the lower-income populations seeking services at the centers will have to travel greater distances and may not have the resources to do so.
When asked how he arrived at his decision about which centers to close, Wolf said he and his staff looked at numbers served, geography and office leases. The goal was to cut costs (roughly $3 million) and avoid redundancy.
“We are going to measure this and hopefully be judged on how this operates by are we seeing more patients, are we doing more clinics? Are we getting to more people? We recognize that’s how we’re going to be judged and we’re more than willing to be judged by that,” Wolf said.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) which represents the health workers and is suing the state over the decision, said it believes as many as 73 people could be furloughed.
Wolf declined to say how many workers would be furloughed because of the pending litigation but a spokeswoman said the union figure is an exaggeration.
The agency said positions being eliminated are located in the district offices, not state health centers, where more than 100 community health nurses work.
Sen. Karen Baker (R., Lehigh) asked Wolf to identify who would be the point person on medical issues, given that he is not a doctor. Most of the previous health secretaries have been medical professionals.
Wolf, who before joining the Corbett administration was a lobbyist for Pfizer, said the newly-nominated physician general Carrie DeLone would handle those duties.
The full Senate is expected to consider Wolf's nomination next week.
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