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UPMC Health Plan opens 'Neighborhood Center' with housing and employment services in East Liberty

Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
The UPMC Health Plan Neighborhood Center is meant to break down barriers to effective health care, whether that’s a lack of childcare, transportation or internet at home.

UPMC Health Plan launched what it calls a “health plan neighborhood center” in East Liberty on Tuesday. The insurance provider is owned by UPMC and serves more than 3.9 million members.

While the facility will aid residents in navigating insurance plans, its name speaks to a broader mission. In the week before its grand opening, staff offered both flu shots and Medicaid and Medicare enrollment information sessions. In the back, there are two private kiosks for telehealth appointments, and a drop-in child care center for parents to use while accessing services there.

Eleven co-working stations with phones and Wi-Fi are available to anyone who comes in, and the organization is partnering with the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank to host a food pantry one Saturday each month.

Program director Thomas Washington said it's all available to any resident — not just UPMC Health Plan members. The goal, he added, is to break down barriers to effective health care, whether that’s a lack of childcare, transportation or internet at home. Located just off Penn Avenue and East Liberty Boulevard, their building is accessible by several bus lines that stop outside.

“You can just come through the doors as you are and we will take everyone as they are to help them in their need,” Washington said.

Development of the center first began around the start of the pandemic, when people were losing their jobs and many required individual health insurance, said Dan LaVallee, senior director for the Center for Social Impact at UPMC Health Plan.

"[In] the East End, we have tens of thousands of members on Medicaid and Medicare and across other products," LaVallee said. "And we have heard time and time again from individuals that we need to bring our services and supports more into the community."

UPMC For You—the health plan’s Medicaid coverage program—invested $450,000 in startup funds to create the facility. It will operate with an estimated budget of $200,000 annually and employs three community health workers to help residents address a variety of needs, including housing and employment.

Those, Washington said, were among the priorities expressed by residents during the facility’s initial community outreach.

The eight neighborhoods the center serves—Garfield, East Liberty, Homewood, Lincoln-Lemington, Larimer, East Hills, Penn Hills and Wilkinsburg—are changing as a result of gentrification, and the health center must be able to pivot to meet the needs of community members undergoing that transformation, Washington explained.

“All of those communities are definitely going through a change in standings as far as housing, the economic build-up. A lot of people don't know where to go, what resources are available—and if they do know what resources are available, it may not be readily available for them,” Washington said. “We would definitely love to have this pathway here in the center to really have community members come in and understand this is a place to get your needs met.”

The center will work with local partners like Action Housing and Partner4Work to offer programs that address affordable housing, workforce training and other needs on its premises.

Residents can also schedule and go to their virtual care appointments at the center. Washington said residents in the area also expressed a need for a safe or secure space where they could talk to a provider.

“We always assume that these things like the internet are available, smartphones are available to everyone, and sometimes [they are] not,” Washington said. “So we really wanted to break down that barrier and say, 'Hey, this is a space that you can come down and utilize.'”

Since January 2021, 27% of UPMC Health Plan members have used telehealth services, according to the Western Pa. health care giant.

While the center doesn’t offer medical care, its leaders say it will also work with community health clinics, like the East Liberty Family Health Care Center nearby, to ensure residents are able to access the health care they need.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.