The Pennsylvania Supreme Court sided with a union that represents nurses Thursday and put a halt to plans by the Corbett administration to close more than a third of the state's county-based health centers.
The court ordered the administration to stop eliminating the centers, reopen those that have already been shuttered and restore the level of public health services to 1995 levels.
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The majority opinion, by Justice Max Baer, said the Legislature has never changed a mandate in a 1996 law that the state maintain the number of health centers it had as of July 1995, when it operated 60 of them.
"While the executive branch contends that its proposed modernization plan is more cost-efficient and better serves the citizens of the commonwealth, it is not for this court to opine on that policy determination," Baer wrote.
Gov. Tom Corbett's administration began to close 26 centers and reorganize public health services last year as a cost-saving budget move designed to increase efficiency.
SEIU vice president Kevin Hefty said the state had closed some of the 26 — he wasn't sure how many — and nurses were laid off or reassigned to other areas. He said it appears those nurse consultant positions will have to be restored.
"These centers provide valuable public health services to the community," Hefty said. "They're located in nearly every county in the commonwealth. And by closing 26 of them, those counties did not have a place to go to get their public health questions answered."
Health Department spokeswoman Aimee Tysarczyk said the decision was being reviewed "to determine the implications to the plan moving forward," and said officials will provide details to agency staff and the public once that review is finished.
In a lone dissent, Justice Michael Eakin said the 1996 law did not preclude closing centers, but rather required the same level of health services to be maintained.
"Times change, and it cannot be that the Legislature meant to lock the state into a series of locations in perpetuity," Eakin wrote. "There will always be demographic shifts, lease expirations, building closures, employee furloughs and transfers, and the advances of technology and treatment options that make change inevitable."
Baer replied in a footnote that SEIU was not seeking to maintain the same locations, just the same number of centers.
Individual nurses, some Democratic state lawmakers and others joined SEIU in the lawsuit.