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Format: 04/23/2014
Format: 04/23/2014

News

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Filling in health care's cracks

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

By Vivian Nereim

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ALTOONA, Pa. -- Hidden away in a two-story brick building, across a parking lot from Kopp Drug pharmacy, is the free clinic that Dr. Zane Gates believes will change Pennsylvania.

Taped to the clinic's door is a sheet of paper listing its hours. Inside, with a handful of employees, eight volunteer doctors and a yearly budget of $256,000, the office serves more than 3,500 people who earn too much to qualify for medical assistance but cannot scrape together enough money for health insurance: Altoona's working poor.

The clinic, Partnering for Health Services, subsists through an association with Altoona Regional Health System, which absorbs and writes off approximately $2.3 million more in costs per year for laboratory tests, X-rays and medication.

But it could not survive without Dr. Gates, who for more than 10 years has nurtured an idea for a better way to deliver health care, tending it as it grew to include two legislative bills, a pending health insurance plan and a clinic that has become one of the most critical safety nets in the Blair County community.

The idea -- which his supporters call simple but radical -- fosters cooperation between hospitals, insurers and health care providers. The result: a clinic that offers effective, timely and affordable care for poor patients. In recognition of his work, Dr. Gates recently was honored by WebMD.com as one of its Health Heroes for 2009.

"He's been a godsend to me," said Diane Koller, 52, an Altoona mother and a patient at the clinic. Ms. Koller, who is diabetic, works at two part-time jobs but cannot afford health insurance. She sees Dr. Gates regularly for blood tests and medication.

"Without him, I wouldn't even be here," she said. "I'm sure."

Dr. Gates argues that federal health care reform may expand insurance options for many Americans but will not change anything for people like Ms. Koller, who still cannot afford to buy a plan. For years, he has fought to create a medical home for the working poor -- a clinic with scheduled office hours, regular appointments and other benefits available to people with insurance.

Even as he weathers setbacks, he is turning heads across the state.

"He's indomitable," said Dr. Jim Withers, who founded Operation Safety Net, which provides health care for homeless people in the Pittsburgh area.

Dr. Gates grew up in Evergreen Manors, an Altoona housing project. He never knew his father. But he was propelled by the charitable ideals of his mother, who never hesitated to take in and care for troubled children from their community.

He attended the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, then transferred to Pitt's School of Pharmacy in Oakland. When he graduated, the entire class applauded, said Patricia Kroboth, the pharmacy school dean.

Dr. Gates -- who had once doubted that a child from a housing project could become a doctor -- enrolled in Pitt's medical school. He graduated in 1995.

As a resident at Allegheny General Hospital, Dr. Gates worked with Dr. Withers on the streets of Pittsburgh and was inspired by the then-revolutionary project for the homeless. After his residency, Dr. Gates returned to Altoona, saying he was hungry to give back to the community that raised him.

In 1998, he simultaneously created a free clinic and an after-school program named for his mother, the Gloria Gates Memorial Foundation. She died when he was 22.

He started with a van, some medical supplies and $23,000, traveling to community centers and holding Wednesday night clinics, he said. In 1999, he merged the clinic with the Altoona Regional Health System, which expanded his staff and started providing free ancillary services and access to specialists.

Today, Dr. Gates, 42, volunteers at the free clinic on Wednesdays and works full time as director of the Altoona Community Health Center, a federally qualified clinic that receives government funding to treat underserved, uninsured or underinsured people. He has expanded his foundation to serve more than 100 children in two housing projects. A broad-faced, broad-shouldered man with boundless energy, he is the father of three children, ages 3, 4, and 12. In his spare time, he writes medical thrillers.

He is a self-professed Democrat who collaborates with Republican politicians

 

To read more, visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette web site.

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