It’s not easy, asking staff to wait a few days before cashing their paychecks. Jeannine Peterson was working hard to right the financially struggling Hamilton Health Center, collecting old debts and downsizing operations.
The year was 2000, and veteran health care policymaker Peterson had been asked by fellow Hamilton board members to step in temporarily. She was clearing up a $2 million deficit while also trying to convince staff to stay. To which they responded: “Why should we stay if you won’t?”
“I had to do some soul searching, and they were right,” Peterson says now. “How could I sit here and say I was just there on a temporary basis, seeing if I can keep the doors open? If I’m able to or not, I’m still riding off into the sunset.”
Today, Peterson is CEO of an ever-expanding federally qualified health center with a $22 million budget, providing physical, mental, dental and vision health services to 38,500 people through 95,600 visits in 2017. Hamilton Health employs 280 people, recently opened a new satellite clinic in Perry County and, this year, will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
A group of Harrisburg-area doctors and dentists founded Hamilton Health in 1969. They saw the need for a medical center serving the underserved, especially those without insurance.
Hamilton Health Center started in a trailer and then developed a habit of moving to larger quarters as it outgrew each space. About five years into her job, Peterson had another idea. She envisioned a large, modern facility that Hamilton could grow into. At the same time, the Community Action Commission identified health care as a primary need in Harrisburg’s Allison Hill. There, a sturdy but rundown former state print shop and warehouse went up for sale—67,000 square feet of blank canvas.
“Everybody thought I lost my mind,” Peterson said.
The community declined to contribute, forcing Peterson to be less ambitious in her goals. So, Hamilton took on the project itself, building out 30,000 square feet in Phase I with $16.5 million in financing cobbled from federal, state and county governments, a Fulton Bank loan and $1 million of its own equity.
Today, visitors to the facility on 17th Street in Harrisburg enter via a bright, soaring lobby. Departments include pediatrics, women’s health, behavioral health, dentistry and the new vision center. The underserved remain Hamilton’s primary demographic. Sixty-five to 70 percent are enrolled in Medical Assistance (Medicaid).
Through longtime partnerships, Hamilton also serves students in the Harrisburg school district, preschoolers in Capital Area Head Start and elderly residents of Harrisburg Housing Authority apartments.
The space that opened in September 2012 was supposed to last 10 years, but “people just kept coming and coming and coming,” Peterson said. For Phase II, which opened in 2015, the community got the picture, donating $8.2 million to a $7 million capital campaign. Pediatrics got its own space, and administration and social services moved in from separate buildings.
“Once people walked in and saw what we had accomplished and that the need still existed, they stepped up,” said Peterson. “This community is a very giving community.”
Hamilton is a “medical mall,” helping patients overcome barriers of language and transportation through bilingual staff and such onsite services as imaging through UPMC Pinnacle and lab work through Quest Diagnostics. Hours range from early morning to evening, plus two Saturdays a month.
“We don’t get it right all the time,” said Peterson. “But we try to think about the needs of the patients who historically have been left out of the mainstream.”
The opioid crisis has sparked the latest round of partnerships and new services.
Peterson launched her career in the substance abuse field in the 1970s, and her 22 years with the state included service as the Department of Health’s deputy secretary for drugs and alcohol. For 17 years, in fact, Hamilton has offered services for pregnant, addicted women.
But the nature of drugs today is “so much more potent, and they’re so much more prevalent in the broader community,” Peterson said. Hamilton is one of the state’s 45 “Centers of Excellence” for treating addiction. Its expanded case management model now covers men, women and families. Medication-assisted therapy is offered inhouse.
“We try to work with members of the community to provide that holistic approach to care,” Peterson said.
Peterson grew up in Pittsburgh, where her father founded a TV repair shop—one of the oldest African-American businesses there, still run by her brother and his son. She is active in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, which performs community services and grants scholarships, and recently was named the chair of the board of directors for the Capital Region Economic Development Corp. (CREDC) for 2019.
She loves to travel, taking road trips with her daughter—a medical informatics professional—and vacations to sunny spots.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my life,” Peterson said. “Everybody doesn’t have two-parent homes and have the ability to go away to college. I say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ God could have had a different path for me. It’s about giving back and always helping people who may not have had those opportunities I did.”
More construction is in Peterson’s future, as Hamilton Health purchased an adjoining lot from the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority. Exact uses remain to be decided. Training rooms might be built for Hamilton’s many medical students and interns who get their first taste of urban and health-center care there.
Today’s sprawling health systems are invaluable partners to Hamilton, but community-based health care will never go out of style, Peterson said.
“That touch, the feel, the being in the community and understanding the diversity of populations is critical for us being able to improve health outcomes,” she said. “It’s not a cookie-cutter approach.”
Dental Director Dr. Martin Francis left private practice in Atlanta to follow his wife, obstetrician Dr. Potacia Francis, to Hamilton.
“I enjoy the way I can give back to the community, being able to help them doing the quality dentistry I did in private practice, being able to see the smiles on the faces,” he said as he stood amid the bright bays of the dental department.
Hamilton’s excellence comes from recruiting the right providers, “and leadership having discussions about care,” Francis said.
“He wants to expand dentistry,” Peterson interjected.
“We have doctors who are committed to giving the best care in the community,” Francis added, “and Hamilton encourages that.”
Hamilton Health Center is located at 110 S. 17th St., Harrisburg. To mark its 50th anniversary, it will hold a weeklong Hamilton CommYOUnity Festival, Aug. 5-10; golf tournament, Sept. 9 at West Shore Country Club; gala, Oct. 24 at Hershey Lodge and Convention Center. For information about the center and services, visit www.Hamiltonhealthcenter.com.