There is an old saying that Pittsburgh residents do not like to cross bridges. That is apparently the case regarding the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's announcement to close its South Side Hospital location as a full-service medical facility.
Councilman Bruce Kraus held a Town Hall meeting Feb. 4 at the South Side Market House for residents to talk about the future of UPMC South Side at 2000 Mary Street. UPMC officials announced last July that the hospital would close its 24-hour emergency room and its 150-bed inpatient facility, citing nearby UPMC Mercy Hospital as the nearest full-service hospital where residents could seek emergency and inpatient care.
According to Google Maps, the front entrance from South Side Hospital to the front entrance of Mercy is 1.7 miles, or approximately five minutes in driving time under ideal traffic conditions which local residents say rarely exists on the bustling South Side.
However, many residents south of the Monongahela River do not want to use Mercy Hospital, citing a major inconvenience in traveling there and a far greater expense in day-time parking to visit someone who is hospitalized there.
Some residents at the meeting also claim Mercy has less sanitary conditions than South Side and less personalized service. Mr. Kraus orchestrated a campaign of more than 600 letters from residents, pleading with UPMC officials to maintain the status quo at the South Side hospital. Mr. Kraus presented the letters to UPMC Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Romoff on Dec. 8 when he met with the top official of the health-care "non-profit" giant which is one of the top employers in the region.
"It's a misconception that this is a done deal," Mr. Kraus told the audience at the start of the meeting. "I believe there is still room for dialogue to work out what is best for the community and what is best for UPMC."
UPMC officials said they are closing South Side as a full-service facility because of skyrocketing costs in the medical field where more specialized technology makes it almost impossible for small community hospitals to exist. The trend in recent years has been toward more regionally-based hospitals where specialized services are economically more feasible.
The UPMC officials cited a dwindling amount of in-patient beds in use at the hospital (less than 30 patients per day). They said the hospital has been operating at a great budget deficit for years and it has only remained open at this point because it is supported by UPMC's vast resources. UPMC is top medical provider in the region.
"We are willing to listen to you and to provide the best possible services [that are economically feasible]," Ms. Magee said. "We will try to make this transition as seamless as possible."
Not one local state legislator could attend the meeting because of their duties in Harrisburg last week. However, state senators Jay Costa and Wayne Fontana had administrative assistants representing them at the meeting. Also, state representatives with an administrative staffer at the meeting included Harry Readshaw and Jake Wheatley. Corey O'Connor (son of late Pittsburgh Mayor Bob O'Connor) attended the meeting on behalf of local U.S. Congressman Mike Doyle.
About 75 to 100 residents showed up at the meeting last week at the Market House. Many were from the South Side as well as neighboring hilltop communities like Arlington, Allentown and Knoxville. These neighborhoods have also been heavily served by the hospital for decades. The vast majority of the meeting attendees were over the age of 50, unlike most other Town Hall meetings in the South Side which often attract a large number of adults in their 20s and 30s.
The top administrators of Mercy and South Side met with the residents to answer questions about their concerns. The residents said closing the basic features that make South Side a full-service hospital would be devastating.
Former city councilman Gene Ricciardi, a life-long South Side resident and current district judge, attended the meeting as a resident, not as a public official. He asked the UPMC administrators if they were "committed" to keeping a fully-staffed, 24-hour emergency room, citing the numerous times his family has used the facility over the years. Mr. Ricciardi also wanted to know if the UPMC staff doctors will maintain the family-practice offices they have throughout the South Side neighborhood.
Ms. Magee said UPMC could not provide a 24-hour ER once it discontinues admitting in-patients for overnight stays because of state regulations. However, she said UPMC is considering a 12-hour per day "Urgent Care" facility (similar to an ER) that would be open from approximately 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day. She said the vast majority of South Side's ER visits occur during those hours anyway.
Ms. Magee also said that to her knowledge, none of the UPMC South Side staff physicians are planning to move their practices from the neighborhood.
In addition to maintaining an Urgent Care Center, UPMC officials said some diagnostic services would also be provided at the Mary Street facility. The exact services have yet to be determined. There has also been a discussion that the health care giant would at least maintain some sort of scaled-down services in the South Side for at least "three to five" years after full-service operations are shut down. However, Mr. Cook said the uncertainty of the economy and the health-care industry in particular, makes it difficult to project the hospital's future beyond this year.
Mr. Kraus said he is planning more public meetings about the hospital's future in the upcoming months.
"I need to know what position you are willing to take and where we will go from here," Mr. Kraus said to the residents at the meeting.
None of these residents want to see this large structure (constructed in the early-1980s when the hospital replaced an old, nearby building) become a white elephant in the neighborhood.
"We want to make everyone aware that is so important to keep the hospital open," Mr. Kraus said.