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How PA will divvy up public defense funds

Plus, the fight to keep labor and delivery services in Elk County continues.

This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

May 2, 2024 | spotlightpa.org

For the first time, Pennsylvania has dedicated money to criminal defense for people who can't afford a lawyer. But where will the historic funding go?

Counties have long been the sole funders of public defense, a setup that has resulted in varied quality statewide. A noncompetitive grant program will allow each county to access a formula-based slice of the $6.75 million investment.

Experts say more state funding will be needed to put public defenders on the same footing as prosecutors offices that have received millions of dollars from the state for years.

Also this week, the ongoing consolidation between DuBois and Sandy Township is only the second one in Pennsylvania after lawmakers standardized the process. It has shown the limits of state law.

Finally, counties across Pennsylvania are spending tens of millions of dollars in opioid settlement money, and records obtained by Spotlight PA and WESA offer the most comprehensive view yet of how they're doing it


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» Snyder County’s new election director survived Pa.’s 2024 primary. The big test comes in November.

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Fight to keep labor and delivery services in Elk County continues 

Despite grassroots efforts to prevent Elk County from becoming the latest rural Pennsylvania community to lose labor and delivery services, its hospital shuttered the maternity unit this week.

Penn Highlands Healthcare, a nonprofit with hospitals statewide, has said money did not factor into its decision to discontinue birth services at Penn Highlands Elk in St. Marys. Officials say Penn Highlands DuBois, where Elk patients will be redirected, will offer a “higher level of care.” 

As rural areas are set to lose population, officials worry the loss will deter people from moving to the region in north-central Pennsylvania, which now includes six counties without a hospital or another facility that delivers babies.

Spotlight PA recently reported on the decision to close the maternity unit at Penn Highlands Elk and Pennsylvania’s widening rural services gap, which Elk County residents hope to fill another way.

When Penn Highlands announced the planned closure in February, a coalition of business owners and local elected officials started pushing lawmakers and hospital leadership to find alternatives. However, several meetings with hospital administrators were unsuccessful.

Business owners pitched various solutions to Penn Highlands. To address staffing challenges, they offered to help with recruitment efforts. To minimize deductible fees, they proposed working with health insurance providers to drive down costs.

The group also asked the health system to delay closing birth services at Penn Highlands Elk until at least November to give patients and emergency staff more time to plan for the change and explore other options, such as working with other providers or finding grants to support birth services.

Corinne Laboon, a spokesperson for Penn Highlands, said leadership appreciates the feedback shared by community members and reiterated that patients can still receive prenatal and postpartum exams, testing, and ultrasounds at Penn Highlands Elk.

“The thoughtful concern expressed to us reflects the true caring nature of the residents of Elk County and surrounding areas,” Laboon told Spotlight PA in an email.

Laboon did not answer whether Penn Highlands considered local offers to alleviate challenges or address community concerns about staffing and space at the DuBois hospital.

Jacki Nesbitt, a maternity nurse at Penn Highlands Elk who worked her last shift this week, told Spotlight PA in March that the hospital expected around 30 deliveries in May.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R., Pa.) and members of Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration met privately with Penn Highlands to discuss the shutdown, according to spokespeople. Discussions about care are ongoing, but the officials’ representatives did not provide specifics.

While local efforts to convince Penn Highlands to stop or delay the closure of birth services in Elk County failed, community members are still looking to find a way to bring labor and delivery back to the area.

“We really expect services to not only be maintained but to be added,” Zack Pontious, a Ridgway Borough Council member, said.

Pontious met with Penn Highlands leadership in mid-April. He didn’t expect to change their minds but told Spotlight PA that he wanted to express how much residents care about the kinds of care available locally. Marley Parish, Spotlight PA

🤔 NEXT QUESTION: Are you on top of the news? Prove it with the latest edition of the Great PA News Quiz: College protests, MLB ‘fiasco,’ and an Obama-era loophole lingers

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