Free health clinic opens in Braddock

Sponsored by local chapter of Muslim Council of America, medical care offered in borough building

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When Mohammed Akhtar came up with the idea to open a free clinic in Braddock after UPMC Braddock hospital closed last year, he had patients in mind just like Vivian Copney.

Ms. Copney, 54, lost her nurse's assistant job when the hospital closed Jan. 31, 2010, and hasn't found work since. A month ago, the extension on her COBRA insurance ran out and she couldn't afford the higher rates to continue it, but she hasn't yet qualified for Medicare.

"These are the people we want to help: the people who slip between the cracks of our system," said Dr. Akhtar, a retired Slippery Rock University psychology professor and president of the local chapter of the Muslim Council of America, which is sponsoring the clinic with funds and 16 volunteer doctors from all over the region -- including UPMC.

In the month since Ms. Copney's insurance ran out, she said the medicine that keeps her high blood pressure in check ran out.

Through word-of-mouth she heard the clinic was opening in the Braddock borough hall and she ended up being its first-ever patient Saturday morning.

After a 30-minute visit in the exam room -- the temporarily converted Braddock code enforcement office -- with the primary care physician Amjad Jalil, normally an oncologist at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Jefferson Hills, she walked out with a prescription that will only cost her a $5 co-pay.

"It's great," she said of the clinic. "I've been going to clinics and they keep telling me, 'Come back when you have insurance.' But my blood pressure was sky high. I'm glad I came in. I'm going to tell my sister and all the friends and family I know who don't have insurance about it."

The drop-in clinic is for adults who make up to 350 percent of the federal poverty threshold -- $37,905 for one person and $77,175 for a family of four -- and who have no health coverage, either private or government-sponsored insurance.

It started as a weekend clinic, running from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, but not holiday weekends. It could expand its hours and days if interest grows, said Riffat Chughtai, the clinic's volunteer manager and a full-time manager of UPMC primary care and internal medicine practice in Duquesne.

"I wanted us to start small, kept it to adult medicine and primary care and weekends," she said. "But the goal is to expand into acute care and sub-specialties."

Dr. Akhtar said he had watched with concern when UPMC closed Braddock's hospital.

"I saw the commotion and emotions and anger running all over" because of the decision, he said. "That's what really showed me that this community was really suffering because of this."

Dr. Jalil has known Dr. Akhtar for years and thought from the first proposal "that this was a good idea."

"These are people who need help," said Dr. Jalil. "And four hours a month is more than doable, if I can balance it with my family life and other commitments."

Ms. Chughtai said she and some of the other UPMC volunteers had additional motivation.

"There's a lot of UPMC physicians in the pool" of volunteers, she said, "and they do feel the Braddock people were cheated out of their health care when they closed the hospital."

"I work for UPMC and we all are loyal to UPMC," she said. "But when your parents make a mistake, you have to do the right thing."

UPMC, which gave some basic medical supplies to help the free clinic, is supportive of its doctors volunteering at the clinic, said UPMC spokesman Paul Wood, though he disagreed that closing UPMC Braddock was a mistake.

"It was clearly the right decision," he said.

After coming up with the idea, Dr. Akhtar had a tough start.

He had some initial conversations with Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, but they were unable to find a building to suit them in town.

Then, Dr. Akhtar said, the borough stopped returning his calls for months and he was worried the project would never get off the ground.

Mr. Fetterman said in a phone interview that the now-convicted former borough manager, Ella Jones, was not passing on messages to him before she was arrested for embezzlement.

But he also wasn't sure Dr. Akhtar was prepared to open a clinic, though he didn't try to stop it when he did.

"If someone wants to bring health care into Braddock, I welcome it," he said. "But patchwork and ad hoc solutions aren't what the community needs. We need a UPMC-quality urgent care center and that's what I hope we get."

Without Mr. Fetterman's help, Dr. Akhtar said he wasn't sure what to do until three months ago when he told a neighbor in the North Hills about his plight, and the neighbor gave him Tony Buba's phone number.

Mr. Buba is a well-known community activist, helping to lead protests against UPMC in the wake of the hospital's closure.

When he got Dr. Akhtar's call, Mr. Buba ran with it.

"I thought, 'There's probably a lot of single working parents who make too much money to get Medicaid who could use this,' " he said.

He then called Braddock council president Jesse Brown, who knew it was needed.

"We have a primary care center here, but I went to see if I could get some care and they said because I didn't have a primary care doctor there I couldn't go there," he said.

He's referring to the Braddock Family Health Center, which added extended evening and weekend hours -- paid for by UPMC -- as part of a lawsuit settlement over the closure of the hospital.

A patient who doesn't have a doctor there can see one, but only in the evening hours or on Saturday, but there's more paperwork to do because it's a federally qualified center, Dr. Akhtar said.

But even with a "soft" opening Saturday -- there was little publicity about it, though a grand opening is planned Sept. 10 -- it was obvious there was a need for the free clinic, Ms. Chughtai said at the end of the day.

"We had four patients in the morning and three more people took applications to see if they're eligible," she said. "And it was quieter in the afternoon. No one came in and we were thinking that maybe we should do one (four-hour) shift in the morning."

"But the local people who are involved said, 'No. Don't do that. They will come as they find out about it. You'll need a second shift.' And I'm sure they're right."

Sean D. Hamill: 412-263-2579


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