Hamilton Health Center’s CEO works to create equal access to quality health care for all

Editor’s note: PennLive is paying tribute to the people who are helping shape what will some day be the history of the Black community in Central Pennsylvania.

These are people who are examples of excellence, who inspire those around them for the work they do, the art they create, or the causes for which they fight.

This is one in a series of profiles featured on PennLive and in The Patriot-News.

Fighting to give equal rights to those who historically have been left behind has always been a mission for Jeannine Peterson, even as a girl growing up in Pittsburgh.

“When I came up in Pittsburgh, I came up during civil rights and we marched for equal rights,” she said. “I just think that you know today with all of the civil unrest that we have to fight, they’re still fighting for justice and equality… That’s the same thing we were doing back in the 60s and 70s.”

Peterson’s journey to becoming executive director of Hamilton Health Center began with a sociology degree and a job in drug treatment at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh. She went on to become part of the Governor’s Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, while earning a master’s degree.

Her focus on her career, though, was suddenly altered when she was blessed by a gift she hadn’t expected at that point of her life’s journey.

“I had reached the pinnacle of my career (and) I found out I was pregnant and I was devastated,” Peterson said. ”I can remember just, you know, thinking, oh my goodness, how am I going to do this.”

This surprise blessing, said Peterson, now tops her list of accomplishments. She was thankful to be able to continue along her career path, traveling with her daughter, and supported by her husband.

Peterson advanced through the ranks of government service, eventually becoming deputy secretary of health under Gov. Bob Casey Sr. She administered the state’s drug and alcohol program, as well as the maternal and child health, and preventative and communicative disease programs before heading to a private sector job when Casey’s term ended in 1995.

In 2000 came the offer that pulled her back to Harrisburg: She was asked to serve as interim CEO of Hamilton Health Center, whose mission is to provide quality health care regardless of recipients’ ability to pay.

At the time, it wasn’t considered a plum job. The center was struggling financially. Many of Peterson’s colleagues believed turning it around was an impossible task.

“They felt it was going to be a failure and a tarnish on my, up to that point, a successful career but I felt that this organization Hamilton Health Center was an organization that was vitally needed in the community,” Peterson said. “It served a significant purpose to provide medical and dental services to people regardless of their ability to pay.”

In 2001, Peterson became CEO. Today, the center has erased its $2 million deficit, and has greatly expanded its offerings, now serving up to 30,000 people in Harrisburg. Peterson has worked to find partners to fill needs in the community — for example, funding from Highmark Foundation allows the center to provide medical and dental services to Harrisburg school children.

It opened a Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy to provide low-cost medications, and moved the health center to a larger location at 110 South 17th St., then expanded it to create “a one-stop state-of-the-art medical mall,” as its website says. It’s even expanded geographically, opening a clinic in Perry County.

Peterson worked to ensure all families, including those on Medicaid managed care plans and the uninsured, access to the center. Bilingual staff was hired, to reflect the population the center serves. A Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program was developed to help young mothers and children with nutrition education, healthy foods, and breastfeeding promotion and support.

“That’s my passion,” Peterson said, “to continue to serve and to find the gaps and the needs and see if we can fill it.”