By Robert Swift, Staff Writer, Capitolwire
HARRISBURG (Nov. 11) – Closed or downsized state hospitals, prisons, and centers for the intellectually disabled could potentially find new use as drug treatment centers according to a recent state legislative study.
The study by the Joint State Government Commission identifies more than 40 vacant state-owned sites across Pennsylvania.
The study was conducted amidst the backdrop of an ongoing opioid epidemic that led to 4,415 drug overdose deaths in 2018 and counts more than 287,000 Pennsylvanians struggling with a substance abuse (including alcohol) disorder.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for drug treatment providers who are trying to secure protective equipment, provide quarantine space, and practice social distancing in crowded shelters.
The places considered the “most suitable for use as drug treatment facilities are on the campuses of recently closed or unused buildings at still operational state hospitals, “ the commission study said.
Six state hospitals fall into this category. They are located at Clarks Summit, Lackawanna County; Wernersville, Berks County; Danville, Montour County; Torrance, Westmoreland County; Warren in Warren County; and Norristown in Montgomery County.
Clarks Summit has two vacant structures; Wernersville has three; Danville has eleven; Torrance has four; Warren has one, which is an unused greenhouse; and Norristown has eight.
“The primary advantage of repurposing state hospitals is that they are already located in areas ideally suited to provide medical care,” the study said.
Norristown State Hospital is cited as an example where a number of human service agencies already lease buildings on the grounds.
The state Department of General Services (DGS) leases space at Norristown to nine county-based providers for a combined rent of nearly $1.8 million annually. These include Carol’s Place, a short-term residential place for adults experiencing an acute psychiatric crisis; and Elwyn/New Beginnings, a residential treatment facility for adults.
A half-dozen non-profit and community organizations use space at Norristown rent- free.
Meanwhile, the study identified Summit Hall at Clarks Summit Hospital and the closed Hamburg Center in Berks County as suitable for conversion into drug treatment centers.
The closed Retreat State Correctional Institution in Luzerne County is also mentioned as a potential treatment center.
Retreat has a long history. It started out as a state hospital and then was converted into a state prison in the 1980s. Retreat’s closing was delayed for a number of months earlier this year while it was used as a COVID-19 quarantine center for new state inmates.
The corrections department is keeping minimal operations at Retreat in case it’s needed again during the pandemic.
The study also cautions that many factors are involved in determining whether a vacant state-owned building is suitable for a drug treatment center.
“There are no easy means to determine whether unused state property will be suitable for conversion into a drug treatment center,” it said.
The factors to be weighed include location relating to higher overdose rates, local zoning, a building’s physical condition, the capacity of existing utilities, level of community support, and an analysis of whether it’s more efficient to build a new facility than restore an older one.
The study offers several recommendations, including that the General Assembly consider selling, gifting, or renting state property for use as drug treatment centers on a case-by-case basis, that the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs be the contact point for treatment providers interested in using vacant state land, and that DGS continues efforts to upgrade the state property inventory.
“While the report revealed the state lacks information about some of its properties, including their general condition and specific repairs, I’m heartened to learn there are former state hospitals, prisons, and centers for the intellectually disabled that could be repurposed to help those with substance abuse disorders,” said Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, who sponsored the House resolution authorizing the study.