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By: Elizabeth Landry
When Mark Hall was a child living in Mulberry Square housing along with his parents and several siblings, his family often came to the nearby Syracuse Community Health Center at 819 South Salina Street in Syracuse for their medical needs. He remembers coming to the center for dental services, pediatrics and related care. In March 2018, Hall returned to the health center he used to visit as a child, but this time he took on the role of interim President and CEO, roles which he eventually took over full time in 2019.
“My commitment to the health center and my relationship with the health center go back to when I was a child. It didn’t take much for me to decide that I wanted to come back to Syracuse Community Health. Ever since I was a child, the health center has been part of my life and part of my family, and that’s when my passion for its mission began. I know first-hand what the health center means to families who might not otherwise have access to health care,” said Hall.
Today, the health center in the heart of Syracuse is known as Syracuse Community Health, and Hall has been leading an initiative to expand, improve and revitalize the center’s buildings that are spread throughout Onondaga County. The health center’s locations include the original building at 819 South Salina Street, additional buildings on East Fayette Street and Oswego Street, care centers within several schools in Syracuse and a brand-new building opening soon at 930 South Salina Street, which is kitty-corner to the original building. Through each of these locations, Syracuse Community Health serves as a “one-stop shop” for patients, providing everything from primary care, pediatrics, dentistry, OB/gyn,
podiatry and eye care/eye wear to women’s health, radiology, lab, urgent care, psychiatric and addiction services, pharmacy and care management services.
Serving Patients as a Federally Qualified Health Center
Originating in the 1960s as the Neighborhood Health Center, Syracuse Community Health has evolved over many decades to continue to meet the needs of patients in the central New York community. In 1978, the health
center was designated as a Federally Qualified Health Center, or FQHC, a status that remains at the center of its functions today.
FQHCs are different from other health care centers because they receive federal funding in order to meet the needs of under-served populations in economically depressed areas.
“The intention of the FQHC legislation was to address many of the problems that were brought to the surface during the 1960s. There was a lot of social unrest within the black community specifically, intertwined with violence and a lot of unemployment.
“These issues were spread throughout the country, and they also affected Syracuse. FQHCs were born out of the desire to address many of these social and economic issues,” Hall explained.
It’s important to note that Syracuse Community Health, like all other FQHCs, is not a free clinic. Syracuse Community Health has an obligation to provide services for any patient who seeks health care within its facilities, and there is a sliding fee scale for all patients based on income. However, care could be provided for free if a patient has no or very low income. Additionally, although Syracuse Community Health traditionally treats an inner-city patient population that is low-income, under-insured and under-employed, the health center also has a segment of more commercial patients who receive Medicaid.
Since Syracuse Community Health receives patients from many walks of life within central New York, it will not turn any patient away, Hall emphasized how the health center has become an important pillar within the community.
“We serve all of Onondaga County, and anybody can come to Syracuse Community Health. There’s a common misconception that poverty only exists in the city, but we have the same problem in the suburbs and rural areas. Poverty is not limited to a race of people or a segment of people, but rather it’s a problem that our country must deal with. The mission of the health center has always been to ensure that everyone has access to care as we address the many social determinants of health, from lack of food and unemployment to transportation, childcare needs and even violence,” said Hall.
Revitalizing Through State-of-the-Art Design
A major way the leadership at Syracuse Community Health is continuing to fulfill the mission of the organization is by revitalizing and modernizing the health center’s buildings, including the brand-new construction located at 930 South Salina Street. Deemed the “930 Project,” the new $25 million site includes 56,000 square feet and will open to patients in September. Located within convenient walking distance to the original building, Hall emphasized how this new location offers ample space for patient exam rooms, provides an open, inviting atmosphere and maintains a more seamless patient experience.
“When I came on board at Syracuse Community Health, a renovation of the original building at 819 South Salina Street was being planned, but I changed that immediately,” he said. “New construction was the best decision simply based on the flexibility of designing a new layout.
“We’re able to see more patients in the new building, which has 38,000 square feet of patient-seen space versus the original building, which has 78,000 square feet. Additionally, if we were to renovate the original building, it would have caused a lot of problems. If you’re renovating existing space and having patients come in daily, parts of the building would be sealed off and wayfinding could change daily and sometimes hourly, making it difficult for patients.”
Along with a layout that makes the best use of the space, the new building features a state-of-the-art design that focuses on energy efficiency. Forty geo-thermal wells that run 200 feet beneath the parking lot will be used to heat and cool the premises year-round. The building is also net-zero-ready, with accommodations for future installation of solar panels that would produce a net-zero carbon footprint.
More than anything else, however, the construction of the new building is aimed at providing a calming, healing atmosphere for the patients who come through the doors. Numerous windows and sky lights flood the space with natural light and artwork by local artists will hang on the walls, creating a beautiful, aesthetic experience for patients that Hall likens to that of a spa.
“We’re really excited about the design – it’s a very inviting space,” Hall said. “There’s so much natural light coming to all four sides of the building. This will create a healing atmosphere within the health center, and the crown jewel will be our women’s mammography center. It’s an absolutely beautiful space that literally looks like a spa. There has been much talk within the healthcare industry on healthcare equity and social determinants of health. At Syracuse Community Health, we’re really taking the steps to make health care available to patients who would not normally have the economic means to take advantage of a high-end spa. The space in the women’s mammography center does exactly that, and we’re really proud of how it all turned out. When considering the design for the new building, we really wanted to drive home the point that people who come to the health center are deserving of quality health care within a quality setting.”
Planning for the Future with New Leadership
Looking beyond the new building and into the future for Syracuse Community Health, additional changes will be coming to further enhance the ability of the health center to serve more patients.
Plans to begin a family medicine residency program in July 2024 will allow the organization to become a teaching health center. With many practitioners choosing to specialize in specific areas of medicine, a high demand for primary care providers has developed. The planned “4-4-4” residency program will bring a new group of four primary care practitioners to Syracuse Community Health each year over a period of three years, opening the health center up to many learning opportunities and resources that will benefit both the providers and the patients.
Perhaps the most significant change coming to Syracuse Community Health in the near-term, however, is new leadership to continue the mission of the health center. Over the next few months, Mark Hall will be passing the baton to Keith Cuttler, who will be taking over as Interim President and CEO of Syracuse Community Health. With more than 34 years of experience in health care, Cuttler came to Syracuse Community Health two years ago as both the Chief Operating Officer and the Chief Business Development Officer. He took over these roles after serving as the President and CEO of the East Hill Medical Center in Auburn for several years, a health care center that also shares the designation of being an FQHC.
One of the main reasons Cuttler decided to come to Syracuse Community Health is because of the exciting new construction taking place. “The new building is a bright, extremely well-laid-out, open-concept, state-of-the-art medical center. One of my frustrations with the health care system that I’ve witnessed over my three-plus decades involved is that those who are of a lower socio-economic class than others are often relegated to less than desirable environments and medical equipment. To me, this project is a tremendous opportunity to shake that off and provide our population with access to a new, clean facility that offers updated equipment and the same great staff in a beautiful facility that has light pouring into it. I think folks who start receiving care in this facility are going to be blown away when they walk in. Many, I would imagine, are going to quietly feel that they don’t deserve this, but in fact, they absolutely do. Taking over the build of this project from Mark has been one of the most fulfilling projects of my entire career,” he said.
As he steps into this new role, Cuttler also plans to advance the efforts that Hall has begun to expand the reach of Syracuse Community Health beyond its immediate urban site and out into suburban and even rural areas, where patients are also in need of affordable, accessible, quality healthcare.
“FQHCs like Syracuse Community Health have a first and foremost mission to provide access to the under-served populations in their communities, but they aren’t limited to treating only that population. We have patients that come from other counties to see us,” Cuttler said.
“I think we’re really going to shed a new light on what Syracuse Community Health is and what it’s becoming, and that is a state-of-the-art health center for everyone, not just the adjacent communities that we will always be committed to serving.
“We’re looking forward to providing anyone who comes to Syracuse Community Health with outstanding care in a really great environment for many years to come.”