Providing a health care ‘safety net’ in Pittsburgh

Wilford Payne is a successful YSU alumnus who works in the health services field.

Wilford Payne

Wilford A. Payne, ’73 BA

Wilford Payne was a young man, not long out of graduate school, when he landed the top job at a Pittsburgh nonprofit called Primary Care Health Services. He didn’t yet realize that the small agency had some big problems.

Just a month after Payne’s arrival, PCHS ran out of money, and there were other issues too. “I didn’t know if we could even make payroll,” he recalled. “I was asking myself why I ever took this job.”

But the YSU alumnus stayed on, determined to turn things around. Now, 33 years later, PCHS is one of the largest health care providers in the greater Pittsburgh area, with 13 medical offices and 25 physicians on staff.  As executive director, Payne has grown the agency’s annual budget from $1 million to a $12 million and stayed true to its mission to serve as a health care safety net for underserved and poor people across Allegheny County, Pa., regardless of their ability to pay.

Payne has a heart for the poor and homeless, but he’s a shrewd businessman as well. He’s expanded the agency’s reach by creating innovative new services that benefit the community while producing more revenue for PCHS.

For example, the non-profit bought two apartment buildings to provide temporary housing for female clients trying to kick a drug habit. “It’s working,” he said, explaining that recovering addicts are more successful when they can avoid the neighborhood where their addiction began.  PCHS also operates a 30-day shelter for homeless people trying to get back on their feet and recently began offering federally funded health care services in homeless shelters around the city.

Payne grew up on Youngstown’s East Side, the son of a laborer. “We were poor, but there was always food on the table,” he said. His parents were leaders in the community, and his mother was the first African American to serve as president of the Youngstown Schools PTA and as a judge in the Youngstown Vindicator Spelling Bee. “They set a high bar for me,” he said.

He went to Bluffton College as a math major right out of high school but quit to join the Air Force. After four years in the service, he enrolled at YSU with the GI Bill to help pay his tuition costs, changed his major and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1973.

Payne got his first experience in community health as a YSU undergrad, working for the nonprofit Model Cities program, and the experience helped him to decide on his career goal. He went on to Ohio State University, where he earned a master’s degree in hospital administration.

Now living in Penn Hills, a Pittsburgh suburb, he drives to Youngstown often to visit his mother. His hobby is collecting, framing and selling African American art.

Payne is driven by a sense of obligation, to his parents and to other African American leaders of the past. “My generation owes a lot to those who went before us in the Civil Rights movement, all those who created opportunities for us to go to college and do whatever we wanted to do,” he said. “I feel like I want to give back, and this job lets me do that.”

OSU recognized him last fall for leadership in health care management, and its alumni society nominated him for Modern Healthcare magazine’s list of the top 25 minority health care executives in the nation. His greatest honor came in 1992 when the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health presented him with The Porter Prize, a national award given annually for exemplary performance in health care. Other recipients include Bill Cosby, U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “To see my name listed with the others in that group is an honor for me that words cannot explain,” Payne said.

(Previously published in YSU Magazine, Spring 2011)