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UPMC Breaks Ground On Uptown Facility Where It Hopes To Help Cure Blindness

Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA
UPMC officials break ground on the hospital system's new vision and rehabilitation tower, which will be part of UPMC Mercy in Uptown

UPMC broke ground Thursday morning on its new vision and rehabilitation tower.

The nine-story, Uptown facility will be part of UPMC Mercy and is projected to open in late 2022. Hospital officials said it will contain subspecialty clinics and research facilities, which will treat complex medical needs and draw patients from outside the region. 

“Uptown, Pittsburgh, Mercy Hospital will become a destination for [ophthalmology] care,” said Michael Grace, president of UPMC Mercy. “Our hopes are for this building to help cure blindness.”

The vision and rehabilitation tower is one of three speciality facilities UPMC is building, which it estimates will cost $2 billion. The other two facilties include a cancer center in Shadyside, and a heart and transplant facility in Oakland, which will sit on the UPMC Presbyterian campus. 

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said that the facility is “going to transform” the Uptown neighborhood. Data compiled by Uptown Partners of Pittsburgh shows the neighborhood is 49 percent black and 49 percent white, with a medium household income of $41,777 and a housing vacancy rate of 27.3 percent.

“We saw what UPMC and the transformation that happened 10 years ago when Children’s Hospital rose up out of the ground in Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, Garfield area of the city,” said Fitzgerald. “It has been a magnet for talented people, for companies, for industry, for growth, for improvement in a neighborhood that was not doing very well back then.”

UPMC has been accused of prioritizing more lucrative medical services over the needs of the community. Activists argue more Pittsburghers would benefit from expanding services like primary care, addiction counseling or diabetes treatment.

“We believe that when a corporation like UPMC is developing in our community, it should be attentive to the needs to that community,” said Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, the executive director of activist group Pittsburgh United. “The facilities that they’re putting in are meant to cater to people from out of town.”

Kennedy said not taking the health needs of taxpayers into account is an abuse of the hospital system’s nonprofit, tax-exempt status. This is simliar to the argument Pennsylvania attorney general made in a legal action his office filed last month, aimed at prodding UPMC to accept Highmark insurance.

When plans for the vision and rehabiliation, cancer center, and the heart and transplant facilities were announced in November 2017, they were all billed as hospitals. UPMC is no longer referring to them as such, because the state regulations require a hospital to maintain certain services, such as an emergency room. 

WESA receives funding from UPMC.