Highmark, MedExpress join forces for center in Braddock

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Medicaid patients will be able to make use of services at a new urgent-care center scheduled to open next summer at the site of the now-demolished UPMC Braddock Hospital.

The one-of-a-kind facility will result from a collaboration between health-insurance giant Highmark Inc. and MedExpress, which already operates 79 similar facilities.

The Braddock center will fill a major gap in health care services for residents of the borough and surrounding communities, according to Deborah Rice, president of Highmark's Health Services Division.

Ms. Rice was one of a half-dozen speakers at a Tuesday news conference called by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to announce the deal.

Getting a new facility to replace some of the services lost when the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center closed its hospital in Braddock in January 2010 was a top priority for local, county and state officials, Mr. Fitzgerald said.

The announcement was praised by Braddock officials.

"We are absolutely delighted that Highmark and MedExpress have heard the cry of local people and have stepped up to help," borough council President Tina Doose said. "We'll welcome them with open arms."

"I thought it was Easter, but it's Christmas in April," Mayor John Fetterman joked.

Former county Executive Dan Onorato, now an executive vice president with Highmark, said the partnership between the health insurance giant and MedExpress offered a unique, new model for providing medical services.

Unlike other MedExpress centers, the one planned for Braddock will accept Medicaid insurance in addition to most private health insurance plans. Medicaid is a state and federal health insurance program serving low-income residents. Braddock and many of its neighboring municipalities are among the poorest in the county.

Details of the Medicaid-acceptance program remain to be worked out, John Tramontina, the company's vice president for business development, said.

UPMC's decision to close the Braddock hospital at the same time as it was building a new facility in more affluent Monroeville raised a firestorm of community protests. The hospital's emergency room served more than 22,000 patients each year, and many would have to travel much longer distances for medical care, opponents of the closing warned.

Some formed a group called Save Our Community Hospitals, which sponsored demonstrations and picketing outside UPMC headquarters Downtown and at other locations.

The announcement of the planned urgent-care center in Braddock was met with cautious optimism by members of that group. SOCH spokesman David Hughes said the organization was happy that Mr. Fitzgerald had succeeded in getting commitments for some replacement health care services.

"If MedExpress will accept a regular [Medicaid] access card, this is a positive development," he said. But an urgent-care center, with limited hours and no hospital nearby, still left residents with unmet needs, he said.

While Mr. Fitzgerald was running for election last year, he said he already was talking informally with health care providers about coming to Braddock. They included UPMC and the Cleveland Clinic.

"Others could have ... but nobody stepped up until Highmark and MedExpress did," he said.

Ground breaking for the 5,000-square-foot MedExpress center will take place this summer. It will be the anchor tenant in a 30,000-square-foot commercial building that also will house classrooms for Community College of Allegheny County and, very likely, some county Health Department offices. The site is on Braddock Avenue, between Fourth Street and Corey Avenue.

When it opens next summer, MedExpress will operate 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. Mr. Tramontina said the facility would be able to provide almost 80 percent of the services offered in hospital emergency rooms.

MedExpress operates 79 urgent-care centers in six states. Mr. Tramontina estimated that number would rise to more than 110 by the end of 2012 as the company expands into additional states.

The urgent-care center will be part of a $20 million redevelopment project that will eventually include 24 units of rental housing, 11 single-family homes and a 20,000-square-foot community park.

The project is being financed with about $13 million in public money and $7 million in private funds, Dennis Davin, county economic development director, said.

neigh_east - health

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. First Published April 11, 2012 12:15 AM


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