By Tina Calabro
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services closed Hamburg Center, a 60-year-old institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, on August 3.
The facility, located in Berks County in eastern Pennsylvania, had 80 residents who moved to smaller facilities and community homes over an 18-month transition period. At the peak of its operation, Hamburg had 800 residents in 39 buildings on 278 acres.
The closure was lauded by the Arc of Pennsylvania, which advocates for the end of institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“The closing of Hamburg Center is another step in making the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania an ‘institution-free’ state and reducing the reliance on institutional care” said Maureen Cronin, executive director of the Arc of Pennsylvania, in a press release.
Cronin thanked Governor Tom Wolf and administration officials for leadership in planning and implementing the closure. "Research shows that when an individual with an intellectual or developmental disability lives in a community setting, quality of life improves, and more opportunities arise for social participation, community integration, relationships with family and friends, and employment,” said Teresa Miller, secretary of the state Department of Human Services, in a press release.
Four other state institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities remain open. Two are in western Pennsylvania -- Polk Center in Venango County and Ebensburg in Cambria County. The others are Selinsgrove Center in Snyder County and Whitehaven Center in Luzerne County. As of August 2018, the four centers had 761 residents and 2471 staff.
The effort to close institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities began in the 1960s when advocates in Pennsylvania and across the nation demanded an end to segregation, overcrowding and other problems, and demanded the creation community-based services.
Beginning in the 1800s, Pennsylvania has operated as many as 30 institutions, including those for people with mental illness. In the 1960s, approximately 13,000 people lived in institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (state centers) and 40,000 lived in institutions for people with mental illness (state hospitals).
Before Hamburg, the last institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to close was Altoona Center in 2005. Western Center in Canonsburg, Washington County, closed in 2000.
In 2017, State Representative Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre) introduced House Bill 1650, which calls for the closing of all state centers by January 1, 2023, and the transition of residents to home- and community-based services. This legislation also calls for any savings from the sale of property to go into a special fund to provide services for people on the waiting list. Currently, more than 4,000 Pennsylvanians are on the emergency waiting list for supports.
The closing of Hamburg is historic, said Nancy Murray, president of the Arc of Greater Pittsburgh. Murray’s familiarity with institutions began 25 years ago when she coordinated supports for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“There’s no one living in a state center who cannot be supported in the community,” she said. “The same supports that are in the center are in the community. Providers of community services have the skills and experience to serve people with complex needs, including all the people in state centers. ”
The process of closing an institution takes residents’ individual needs into consideration, she said. The average age of residents in the state’s four centers is 58 to 59, she said, citing data from the state Office of Developmental Programs.
The average per-person cost to house a person in a state center is $366,000 to $420,000 annually and varies by center, she said. The cost to support a person with an intellectual or developmental disability in the community is $100,000 to $217,000, and varies according to each person’s support needs.