Hilltop Community Health Center grows from trailer to specialized space


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Pittsburgh's comeback narrative touts the attraction of nationally recognized medical institutions, but a double-wide trailer in Beltzhoover is bursting at the seams as the only medical destination many poor residents of the southern hilltop neighborhoods have known for the past decade.

Thanks to a $1.9 million federal grant, the Hilltop Community Health Center will more than triple its space in July on the ground floor of the former South Hills High School, 151 Ruth St., Mount Washington. The high school was renovated in 2011 into 106 units of elder housing, with ground-floor areas available for commercial ventures. The clinic will be in the former gymnasium.

An open house is set from 4 to 8 p.m. July 16. The first patients to the new clinic will be seen July 28.

The patient load has hit close to 2,000 in a 1,500-square-foot trailer that was to have been replaced by a community center that was never was built. The new location is two-tenths of a mile from the trailer.

In 2000, the Beltzhoover Citizens Community Development Corp., recognizing the need for a medical presence on the hilltop, petitioned the Sto-Rox Neighborhood Health Center to establish a sister clinic. In 2004, the trailer was delivered to a field on Climax Street, and Amy Nevin, M.D., saw the first patients.

The clinic's staying power is based on a mission that "people either get or they leave," said Joanne Andiorio, a former president of Mercy Hospital who administers both the Hilltop and Sto-Rox clinics. "People who work for us are not at a high level of pay."

The $4 million annual budget includes $1.5 million from the Human Resources and Services Administration because of the clinic's service to neighborhoods that are federally recognized as underserved. Those neighborhoods include Allentown, Knoxville and Arlington, which are behind Mount Washington and the South Side Slopes. One stipulation is that the clinic's location be convenient to the needy.

Patients, though, can come from anywhere, by appointment or by walking in and waiting. Ms. Andiorio said most care is reimbursed by Medicaid. Some people have private insurance. The rest pay on an income-based sliding scale.

Most of the clinic's patients take more than the standard scheduling slot to see because of multiple needs, said Trina Peduzzi, a pediatrician who joined the staff seven years ago. "We have homeless patients and parents who are struggling with mental health disorders, drug and alcohol addictions and with low access to community resources.

"We can't see them in 10 minutes. We don't have a social worker, so we do the social work."

Nurse practitioner Lorraine Reiser said 20 minutes is well spent on education to prevent future health problems. If medical care emphasizing preventative care began to trend, health care costs could begin to reverse, she said.

The Birmingham Foundation funded the clinic to get it started. It also funds the Birmingham Clinic at the Salvation Army on the South Side. Its executive director, Mark Bibro, related the need for health care in some neighborhoods to a lack of profit motive: "We know about food deserts where there are no grocery stores," he said. "They don't want to go" where there's little money. For those populations, the care of last resort is often an emergency room, he said.

The new location is 7,000 square feet of space designed to standards of the Green Building Council and insulated to save the clinic 80 percent of what it would spend on energy costs there otherwise, said architect Michael Whartnaby, co-owner of the firm Thoughtful Balance, which specializes in design that's referred to as "passive house" because it is built to be a passive user of energy. The firm worked with James Construction on the design of the clinic.

"It's a big transition to go from a double-wide to 7,000 square feet," said the firm's co-owner, Laura Nettleton. "That can turn a budget on its ear. If you can make a better wall and not be treating the outside temperature, you can dramatically reduce the size of mechanical equipment and your load."

The construction materials, furniture, carpeting and paint are chemical-free but no-frills.

Compared with the trailer, the new quarters "will make people feel they've gone to heaven," Ms. Andiorio said.

The doctors agree that conditions haven't been ideal.

"We're weighing babies and answering phone calls and doing a hearing test in the same area," said Dr. Nevin. "But it has a homey feel, and we're trying to bring that to the new place.

"It has been a great opportunity to create something that started with the community and build it into a wonderful resource," she said. "I feel privileged to be in this position, to be where there's such a need, to have a relationship with families, to have the pleasure of time with them.

"There are a lot of reasons why people become doctors, and to me, this is very consistent with why I went to medical school."

Drs. Nevin and Peduzzi trained together at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC before Dr. Peduzzi worked as a pediatrician for an immigrant population in the Bronx. When for personal reasons she moved back to Pittsburgh, Dr. Nevin recruited her to join the small Hilltop staff, which includes Lynne Williams, M.D., and contracts for services with a podiatrist, a dentist and psychiatrist.

"The fact there are underserved people in Pittsburgh has to do with the expectation [among large medical providers] that the patients come to them," said Dr. Peduzzi. "Our role is to come to the patients. And we are hoping to see more with more space."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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