Friday, November 24, 2000
By Virginia Linn, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Wanted: A large building that's handicapped accessible. Large enough to provide ample space for occupational and physical therapy programs, education, social services and recreation. Location near a neurologist would be a plus.
The Multiple Sclerosis Service Society is searching for a new site for its large therapy center, which will lose its home near Jefferson Hospital on Dec. 31.
Since the early 1990s, the society has leased 10,000 square feet in an old school building owned by South Hills Health System, where it provides 500 to 600 MS clients from the region with rehabilitation, medical, education, support and recreation services, and respite care for family and caregivers.
The therapy center is the only licensed Medicare Certified Comprehensive Outpatient Rehabilitation Facility in the United States designed exclusively for people with MS, a debilitating disease that shatters the central nervous system and can affect coordination and speech.
But the health system, facing $14.5 million in projected losses for 2000-01 fiscal year, closed its Homestead Emergency and Family Medicine Center to cut costs on Oct. 31 and recently notified the society that it needs the MS therapy location to consolidate some of those operations.
"We're just utilizing our own space," said William Jennings, president of Jefferson Hospital and its parent, South Hills Health System.
"We expected there to be some changes" and said the therapy center had been operating on a month-to-month lease, Jennings said. "The lease is up."
Mark Bibro, president of the board of directors of the nonprofit society, said it hopes to find a comparable building that would be accessible to all its clients and staff but also would be close to neurological services.
For example, Dr. Thomas Scott, director of the Allegheny Multiple Sclerosis Treatment Center at Allegheny General Hospital, sees a lot of MS patients, which might make the North Side a possible site, Bibro said.
The society also has talked about establishing a central administration office and operating satellite therapy sites that would be closer to clients who come from 11 southwestern Pennsylvania counties, he said.
"We're not expecting a break in service," Bibro said. If a site can't be found by the end of the year, he said he hoped to be able to work out something with the health system.
Jennings would not comment on what action the system would take but emphasized that it needs the space Jan. 1.
News of the move has spawned concerns among many of the clients, including Thomas Hackenson, 31, of Belle Vernon, who has visited the center twice a week for 21/2 years.
He was diagnosed with MS at age 26 while working as a firefighter and emergency medical technician.
"Going from being so active to having them tell me that I can't walk anymore and have to be in a wheelchair, it hurts," he said.
Hackenson's father, also named Thomas, said the center services and camaraderie his son has developed with staff and MS clients have helped improve his son's outlook. His son receives physical and occupational therapy and participates in recreational and social activities there.
"Some of the patients down there, even though they can't speak that clearly, we build up an incredible bond ... I've made some of the best friends ever down there," the younger Hackenson said.
He feared a move, even to the North Side, would limit how often he could use the center. It's now a 25-minute drive from Belle Vernon.
"I rely on my parents to get me there. They're not that young anymore," he said.
The younger Hackenson also said many of the 20 staff members live in the Jefferson Hills area and may not be able to work at another site if it is too far away.
Jan Glick, executive director of the therapy center, echoed that concern.
"There's a comfort level they [clients] can't experience anywhere else,"