Highlands Hospital Expansion at Former School Boon to Autism Program

Highlands Hospital expansion at former school boon to autism program

Highlands Hospital in Connellsville has almost completed updates to convert the former Zachariah Connell Elementary School into a health care center.
They have moved their Highlands Hospital Regional Center for Autism school from its former location on Breakneck Road, where it only had enough room to serve less than 20 students, to the new site on Park Street in Connellsville, where space will allow for as many as 75 students.
The autism school is the only one in the state of Pennsylvania that is affiliated with the Cleveland Clinic.

The hospital’s autism facility has been open since 2011 with just four students its first year. It grew to 17 students as of last year, which was the maximum number the building could accommodate. “The last two years at the former location on Breakneck Road, they were operating at maximum capacity, so when this building came available, we knew it would be perfect for expansion,” said John Andursky, Chief Executive Officer at Highlands Hospital.

Jordan Morran, director of autism services, said they now have 24 students enrolled in the school, which caters to ages 5 years to age 21, and they are hoping to continue to grow in the future. “There are three licensed teachers who oversee the school and with our licensed classroom behavioral therapists, we have a ratio of one adult to one child, or at the least, one adult to two students,” Morran said. “All of our positions are degree positions, so we have a higher staff-to-student ratio and a more qualified staff than most autism programs.”

Students come to the school year-round and their enrollment is contracted through the school districts. Currently, the center partners with seven area school districts. “If feels their child’s needs are not being met, they will reach out to the special education department at the school who would then get in contact with us,” Morran said. The Highlands staff would then work out a contract with the family for placement of the child in their school.

Along with the expanded school, renovations for a blended-care model wing that will include behavioral health, women’s health and primary care should be complete some time in October. The blended-care wing will mainly be a physician space that will include primary care services, behavioral health, integrative medicine techniques and possibly even a diabetes center. “We have a midwife partnering with us, a psychiatrist piece in place and now we’re working out a primary care component,” Andursky said. “We’re hoping to open this space by mid-October. One of the things they’re excited about with this is the new Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation machine that uses MRI techniques to stimulate that part of the brain that’s causing major depression.

“This is a way that we can begin to treat depression without having to use medicine,” Andursky said. “As a small independent hospital, we’re putting together unique services and really just reinventing ourselves. This stimulation technique is so unique that even the Cleveland Clinic has begun to look into it.”
He added that there are no side effects with the transcranial machine and now, insurance companies will cover the treatment if there is no improvement with an individual after treating them with at least one medicine first.

“The closest one to us right now is in Morgantown, and the therapy calls for four to six weeks of daily treatments, so unless you live close to one, you’re probably not going to be able to take advantage of something like this.”

The third project Highlands Hospital officials have planned for the building is a Women’s Center for Health Impact that will address risk factors for women’s health in a multifaceted way including physically, behaviorally and spiritually through hormone therapy, postpartum care, drug responsiveness and more.

Andursky said they are in the process of finalizing documentation for a Redevelopment Assistance Capitalization Project grant to help fund the women’s center.
“This will be a whole-person approach to provide diagnostic services for women from mammograms, bone density screenings and gynecological visits to hormone therapy and postpartum depression,” he said. Highlands officials expect the women’s center to be open by mid to late spring next year.

“From there, we will have one wing left on the top floor that will most likely be medical services or additional autism services,” Andursky said. “There’s also a possibility down the road that we would bring diabetes care into our blended care unit. We want to make all medical services as convenient as possible for the community.”

By Rachel Basinger
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