Published 12:00 am Friday, May 21, 2010

‘Ambassador’ made impression on doc

(Editor’s note: the following story published Monday, May 17 in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. It is running in its entirety with permission from the newspaper.)

By Vivian Nereim

Zane Gates and Deshea Townsend are as different as their hometowns of Altoona, Pa., and Batesville, Miss., separated by the Mason-Dixon Line and 946 miles.

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Dr. Gates, 42, has spent more than 10 years tending his free medical clinic for Altoona’s working poor, complete with regular office hours and scheduled appointments. Mr. Townsend, 34, has spent 12 years tending his professional football career, capped by two Steelers Super Bowl rings.

When the two men met last June, though, they became allies and friends. Together, they are pushing Dr. Gates’ unique ideas about health care across the state and beyond.

It is an unusual relationship, built around a simple belief: that people who cannot afford health insurance deserve access to good medical care, and that doctors can provide that care through hospital-based clinics that cost very little to operate.

Dr. Gates calls Mr. Townsend his “goodwill ambassador.”

“I just want the rights to his movie,” Mr. Townsend said.

Since the NFL season ended, Dr. Gates and Mr. Townsend have traveled to Harrisburg three times to speak to state lawmakers about a bill that would fund clinics across Pennsylvania.

Last Monday, they met with executives from seven area hospitals to discuss the logistics of expanding the Altoona model to other regions.

On Thursday, they flew to Mississippi, exploring a plan to open a clinic in the city where Mr. Townsend was raised. And now, some of the other Steelers players are interested in bringing clinics to their hometowns.

“It’s kind of a neat partnership,” said state Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Cambria. “There’s even other states looking at this model. And God forbid we wouldn’t get it put in place before some other state gets it.”

A new model

 for health care

The clinic in Altoona has turned heads across Pennsylvania. Each year, it serves more than 3,500 people with eight volunteer doctors and a yearly budget of less than $300,000.

To qualify for care, patients must earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, but they also must prove that they earn too much to qualify for medical assistance. After that, their care is free, though many choose to donate.

Dr. Gates believes that even with the changes soon to be wrought by health care reform, people like his patients — the working poor — will remain underserved.

His clinic, Partnering for Health Services, is able to survive because of an association with Altoona Regional Health System, which absorbs and writes off additional costs of about $2.3 million per year in laboratory tests, X-rays and medication.

Dr. Gates said that by cooperating with hospitals, free clinics can offer high-quality care to patients who would otherwise clog emergency rooms, incurring huge costs.

In 2008 and 2009, Dr. Gates worked with several state lawmakers to introduce bills in the Senate and House that would provide government funds to clinics like his, which are called “community-based health care clinics” in the legislation.

But though the Senate bill had bipartisan support, it languished in the appropriations committee for more than a year. It was not until after Mr. Townsend threw his weight behind Dr. Gates that the bill began to budge.

“He went to Harrisburg with me, and we were on the Senate floor, and I was speaking, and finally, they just did it,” said Dr. Gates. “Politics is a weird thing.”

Senate Bill 5 passed unanimously March 24.

State Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, who co-sponsored the bill, said that while Mr. Townsend did not cause the victory, passionate support can help tip a bill over the edge.

“Deshea is a believer, and he’s willing to help in any way he can,” said Mr. Eichelberger.

Allies and friends

Dr. Gates and Mr. Townsend were introduced by Debi Wheeler, a consultant from Somerset who also works with several Steelers players.

“In the course of my travels and what I’m doing, I connect a lot of dots,” said Ms. Wheeler. “There was a tremendous dot to connect with Deshea and Dr. Gates.”

Ms. Wheeler is an avid supporter of Dr. Gates, whom she met through a mutual friend. Last year, she encouraged him to attend one of Mr. Townsend’s summer football camps.

Mr. Townsend has for years hosted football skills clinics for children in Mississippi and Pittsburgh through his Pay It Forward Foundation.

Last year, the clinics were organized in conjunction with a community health fair, which provided free medical screenings.

Dr. Gates came to the Pittsburgh camp with 25 boys and girls from Altoona in tow. The two men were “a perfect match,” said Ms. Wheeler.

Dr. Gates’ crusade for the working poor moved Mr. Townsend, whose mother died in 1999 after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“When she went to the doctor for her chemo, her cancer was so far that if they had just caught it earlier … ,” Mr. Townsend said. “It’s always on my heart.”

And while Dr. Gates and Mr. Townsend built their success in wildly different fields, they have much in common. Both men have three children and full schedules. Both lost their mothers in their early 20s. Neither has forgotten where he came from.

“The thing I liked most about him is how down to earth he is,” Dr. Gates said of Mr. Townsend. “You look at him, he doesn’t wear any gold, any jewelry. He’s just a real simple guy.”

When Mr. Townsend finished his season with the Steelers — he is now an unrestricted free agent — he traveled to Altoona to visit Dr. Gates’ clinic.

From the beginning, he had an idea.

“What if we actually had a place where you went to the doctor, you can go work out, have trainers, and then have a restaurant there to actually teach you how to eat and what to eat?” said Mr. Townsend.

He is currently eying a vacant Walmart building in Batesville that he hopes will soon house a gym, a healthy restaurant and a medical clinic.

“So many people that I know are workers — the ones that do hair, work at the tire place — that just have regular jobs. But insurance is at such a price right now that they have to make the decision of feeding their family or taking out their insurance,” he said.

Mr. Townsend wants to tie the clinic to a local hospital. He and Dr. Gates stayed in Mississippi through Sunday, meeting with state legislators and hospital executives.

“He’s like a brother to me,” said Dr. Gates. “He’s dragging me all over the country.”

The road ahead

Dr. Gates will need Mr. Townsend’s support in the coming months. Before it becomes a law, Senate Bill 5 must pass in the House. It is currently in the Health and Human Services Committee.

“I think there’s tremendous possibilities for this to occur,” said state Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, D-Berks, who co-sponsored the House version of the bill. “But it’s like anything else up here. If you don’t keep pushing, pushing, pushing, it ain’t going to happen.”

In fact, sections in the bill that established a fund to support community-based health care clinics — through an appropriation and a tax credit — were eliminated in the version of the bill that passed.

“At this point, we don’t have any dedicated funding lined up for it,” said Mr. Eichelberger. “The governor hasn’t been particularly supportive of this legislation and the budget has been particularly tight.”

Dr. Gates is confident that by using existing line items for medical assistance, policy-makers can find enough money in the current budget to support the grants.

Mr. Haluska shared Dr. Gates’ belief that money could be moved around to meet their goals.

“We’re hopeful through this budget process,” he said.

Dr. Gates will continue to push, as he has for years. But now he will do so with Mr. Townsend and Ms. Wheeler behind him.

“If he needs me to do anything, I’d be really willing to do it,” said Mr. Townsend.

A little celebrity couldn’t hurt.