By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times
As CEO for a government that would eventually file bankruptcy and deal with several other financial emergencies, former Jefferson County Manager Tony Petelos faced a number of tough decisions. One of the most difficult, he said, was the move to downsize Cooper Green Mercy Hospital, the downtown Birmingham facility for mostly indigent patients.
“I became a county manager in 2011, and Cooper Green was a hospital at the time. It was losing millions of dollars every year and we were facing bankruptcy, so the [County Commission] had to make a tough decision. … My job was to close inpatient care [at Cooper Green], which was not easy to do,” said Petelos, who added that the inpatient care portion of the hospital closed but many of the other services remained.
“The emergency room turned into … [what I call] an urgent care center on steroids because it was the same emergency room doctors, the same facility, the same everything, except you could not be an emergency resident if you were in the hospital at the time,” Petelos said.
The changes allowed the facility to stay afloat: “If we hadn’t shut down [inpatient], we were destined to fail financially,” he said.
It was also Petelos who told County Commissioners in 2016 that Cooper Green’s building was “out of date” and said, “We need to build a new facility.”
That new facility is on the way.
Last week, the Cooper Green Mercy Health Services Authority received final approval from the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama System to move forward with plans to replace the current Cooper Green building with a state-of-the-art medical clinic; construction should begin this winter.
The new facility—a five-story, 207,000-square-foot building with an overall estimated cost of $120 million—will be built on the site of the former Cooper Green parking deck, which was demolished earlier this year.
The building will feature new equipment, including plans for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine that will ease scheduling for Cooper Green patients who need screening. Other amenities that will improve access to care include an expanded rehabilitation suite with a covered outdoor section for developing outdoor skills, such as navigating curbs and different ground surfaces.
In addition, the new facility will house several other professional and community services, such as Cahaba Dental, the Recovery Resource Crisis Center, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Community Psychiatry Program, and the UAB School of Nursing Providing Access to Healthcare (PATH) Clinic.
Petelos is excited about the groundbreaking, “which could be a model for the rest of the country by providing services to some of the poorest people in Jefferson County, as well as to the working poor that don’t have insurance,” he said.
Petelos, who grew up in Birmingham’s Ensley neighborhood in a single-parent household with four other siblings due to his father passing away, knows about the importance of a facility like Cooper Green. His mother was an immigrant from Greece, and he and his siblings didn’t have much.
“We grew up very, very poor,” he said. “[I] understand the plight of poor people in Jefferson County, and I think that’s what gets me excited about the future of Cooper Green.”
Petelos understands the importance of Cooper Green from another perspective, as well.
When attending a meeting at the facility in 2014, he did not feel well: “That day I wasn’t feeling good, and I knew something was going on,” he recalled.
After the meeting, Petelos went downstairs to the urgent care facility because his primary doctor had retired. After undergoing a series of tests, he was told to visit a urologist, a medical professional who specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases of the urinary tract and the male reproductive system.
“When I did that, I found out I had bladder and prostate cancer. So, the beginning of my cancer journey was at Cooper Green, which informed me that I needed to go see a specialist, which I did,” said Petelos, who is now cancer-free.
Petelos was also part of the decision for Cooper Green to become part of a UAB-led authority.
“It was just very cumbersome for a government to run a health care facility. The model just doesn’t work anymore,” said Petelos, who was appointed serve on the Cooper Green Mercy Health Services Authority board of directors in 2020. His term expires this month, but he’s looking toward the future.
“We’re moving into a new era for Cooper Green, and that’s very, very exciting,” said Petelos. “I’m glad to have helped paint a very, very small portion of the picture to get this put together.”
Cooper Green Mercy Health Services operates as an outpatient clinic at 1515 6th Ave. S., Birmingham, AL 35233. Urgent care is open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and clinics are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. To get connected with Cooper Green, call 205-930