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POWERBOOK 2013: Jeannine Peterson turns around health center, community

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Jeannine Peterson is CEO of Hamilton Health Center. The Harrisburg-based nonprofit is a federally qualified health center that provides medical, dental and mental health care to people of lower income, including many who are uninsured or underinsured.
Jeannine Peterson is CEO of Hamilton Health Center. The Harrisburg-based nonprofit is a federally qualified health center that provides medical, dental and mental health care to people of lower income, including many who are uninsured or underinsured. - (Photo / )

When Jeannine Peterson came on as CEO of the Hamilton Health Center, it was supposed to be a temporary fix.

That was in 2000.

Thirteen years later, she's built the Harrisburg facility into a $17-million-a-year operation, guided it out of $2 million in debt and presided over a $23.5 million renovation project that moved the center to its new, centralized South Allison Hill location.

Now, she's using her established stature in the Harrisburg area and as the center's CEO to advance affordable health care for the low-income community in the midstate.

"I care about the community, and I care about the center," she said. "If you believe in something, and I believe in this center, then you've got to stick it out. When something is in your way, you go around it, over it, under it, whatever. I think this effort is worthwhile."

A decorated, 22-year career in government and a second career in consulting kept her in Harrisburg long enough that she could take over the job she said she wanted all along, but just didn't know it.

"I tell people all the time, 'I found my passion,'" she said about letting the temporary tag become permanent and turning the center around. "This is what I belong doing."

Michael Harris, chairman of the center's board, said it has been Peterson's vision and dedication, professionally and personally, that has brought the center out of its hard times and into the situation now where its success can have a positive impact on the entire community.

"She creates and fosters a positive and encouraging environment wherein our staff feel engaged and motivated," Harris said. "This environment carries over to the community at large. I believe that it is vitally important to create an environment where our patients feel welcomed and comfortable to ask questions and seek assistance working through the rapidly changing world of health care."

Peterson started as a drug and alcohol case worker at a Pittsburgh hospital, but one year into the job, she said, she was recruited to work for the state in its drug and alcohol program.

Her years with the state led to promotions as far as a deputy secretary of the Department of Health in the cabinet of Gov. Bob Casey from 1987 to 1995.

Even while working in consulting in Washington, D.C., after her state government tenure, she kept her presence in the Harrisburg community. She and her husband, William, started a nonprofit group, the Center for Community Building, in Harrisburg. Her husband still runs it.

Through that endeavor, she joined the board of directors at Hamilton Health Center in 1998, coming on at a time when the organization was flailing. Within two years, the other directors asked her to step away from her board position so she could take over as CEO.

"It was supposed to be just to keep the doors open and start to turn things around," she said, adding the center was $2 million in debt and dangerously close to closing. "But we found the staff wouldn't buy in to some of the things we were doing if I was just going to be leaving in a couple months."

Punitha William, the center's chief medical officer, has been with the center only since 2008, but she's heard enough history to know the future of the center was bleak when Peterson took over.

"I think it would have been the end of Hamilton Health," she said. "A lot of hard work has gone into getting rid of a lot of that negativity, to get to this point where everybody wants to come and work here. That's because of Jeannine."

Peterson worked some budgetary magic to start the recovery. She said the center had lost credibility in the community because of the debt, so she began volunteering on boards throughout the city to help get the word out that the center was a place where the community's low-income population could get reliable health care. The volunteering effort led to a stint as the chairwoman of the board of directors for the United Way of the Capital Region.

"I was doing anything I could," she said. "If the center closed, where would our patients go?"

Finding a new facility became her next major project. The finding part was easy enough — an abandoned warehouse on 17th Street in a highly populated, low-income area of the city that brings the center to the people it serves — but then came the task of paying for it and renovating it into a suitable medical treatment facility.

For about six years, the center turned out every pocket it could looking for the $16.5 million it needed for the first phase — getting funding and low-interest loans from city, state and federal funding sources. As proof the center was truly out of debt, it also used $1 million of its own money to finance the renovation, Peterson said.

The new location opened in September 2012, and last month, the center announced the second phase of its campaign already has raised about $6 million of the $7 million it needs to complete the renovation.

Construction is expected to start in February, with the additional piece of the center to open in fall 2014.

The overall expansion will allow the center to double the number of patients it sees (20,000 in 2012) and patient visits (77,000 in 2012) by 2015, Peterson said.

Peterson's time at the helm of the center reads like a blueprint for how to turn around a distressed nonprofit, and people she works said they always feel her positivity and dedication.

"She always has a smile," William said. "When she says 'good morning' to you with that smile, you're the most important person in the world to her. And it's not just the executive managers, it's everybody here. She has that way with everyone. That's a leader."

About Jeannine Peterson

Title: CEO of Hamilton Health Center in Harrisburg

Age: 62

Education: Graduated from Michigan State with degree in sociology, master's in public administration from Penn State Harrisburg

Family: Husband, William; daughter, Kendra

Who is your professional hero? "I have a few. Gov. (Bob) Casey. He was a man of such character and ethics and was just a great person. Bill Lehr, the chairman of the board at Capital BlueCross. He's done everything in the business world, he's very unassuming, and he gives back. And my father. He gave me my work ethic."

What's the most important thing you do every day? "Praise God for everything he's given me. I do it when I come into work first thing, and I do it the last thing before I leave at night. I truly believe he guides my life."

Michael Sadowski

Michael Sadowski

Mike Sadowski covers Lebanon County, banking and finance, law and the legal community, and technology. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at michaels@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @MikeCPBJ. Circle Michael Sadowski on .

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