By Jon O’Connell
They stand as sentries to their cities and an economic lifeblood. The northeast region’s sprawling medical centers dominate the skylines and have become de facto borders for their downtowns.
Urban sprawl pushed populations away from city centers, but health systems pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into modernizing centrally located hospitals. That’s partly because a central location still serves the greatest number of people. It’s also because the health systems that now run them build on past investments.
“General’s been here over 100 years, the former Mercy Hospital and Moses Taylor — they’ve been there for decades,” said Commonwealth Health and Wilkes-Barre General Hospital CEO Cornelio Catena. “Because of the investment we’ve already made in these structures ... we just felt that it made sense for us at this time to invest in the facilities that we have.”
Specialty medical group Delta Medix, headquartered on Penn Avenue in downtown Scranton, is moving even deeper into the heart of the city in a bid to consolidate its services and improve access for patients.
Delta Medix, home base for 21 doctors, five nurse practitioners and 165 employees, plans to transplant to the rebounding Marketplace at Steamtown later this year.
New mall owner John Basalyga is building to suit, converting the 40,000-square-foot expanse in the former Bon Ton department store into a diagnosis and treatment hub. Plans include administrative offices, a general surgery suite and five specialty services.
“We’re very committed to downtown. We’ve been established in center city for over 50 years. So our goal was to try to find a suitable location in downtown,” said Delta Medix CEO Margo Opsasnick.
For now, at the group’s current Breast Care Center on Penn Avenue, nurses and technicians rub elbows at computer stations tucked in cramped corners and squeeze past each other in narrow hallways. About 12,000 women pass through the center each year for screenings and more in-depth diagnostic tests. The repurposed department store gives them breathing room and space to grow.
As housing preference among millennials, those around 20 to 36 years old, shifts to more “walkable” locales where they don’t need a car to get to work, hospitals and downtown providers take an increasingly important role.
Health care is one of the top job makers, with hospitals alone in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metro area employing nearly 9,000 people, according to state figures.
The health sector at large and social assistance programs employ more than 43,000 people in the region.
Both Commonwealth Health and Geisinger Health System, the region’s largest provider systems, have recently announced hiring campaigns, each looking to add about 150 nurses across all their facilities.
“I feel like we have a role to provide good jobs, and this community needs that,” said Dr. Anthony Aquilina, regional president for Geisinger Northeast, which includes hospitals in Scranton and Plains Twp.
As he sat in the lobby of Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton, doctors and nurses in scrubs and lab coats hustled from the elevator to the lobby coffee shop and back. If he could, Aquilina said he’d hire 70 new nurses immediately.
Registered nurses on average earn about $65,000 a year in pay; nurses’ salaries typically start about $55,000 — just the kind of wage somebody needs to live in a higher-end downtown apartment.
“How many other jobs can claim that?” he said.
Statewide, hospital payrolls top $16.4 billion to more than 286,000 people, according to the Hospital & Healthcare Association of Pennsylvania’s 2016 economic impact report.
In-state industries that support hospitals employ an additional 339,200 people and pay $14.5 billion in salaries.
Nationally, hospitals employ nearly 5.6 million people and are the largest source of private-sector jobs, spending more than $387 billion on payroll each year, according to the American Hospital Association.
While health care as an industry plows ahead, a city’s revitalization must start with the health of its citizens, said Nancy Lawton-Kluck, chief philanthropy officer with the Geisinger Health System.
Earlier this year, Geisinger began a collaborative project called Springboard Healthy Scranton, with the region’s nonprofit network aspiring to make Scranton the “healthiest place to be in the country” by tackling physical, mental and financial health issues. Scranton is the proving ground. If it can be done here, it can be duplicated most anywhere, Geisinger contends.
This story first appeared in the Times-Tribune on