Pennsylvania Physician Provides Free Health Care to Working Poor

Updated on January 27, 2012
Dr. Zane Gates

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation® Honors Zane Gates, MD, With a 2011 Community Health Leaders Award  

After completing medical school and a residency in internal medicine, Zane Gates ultimately returned home to Altoona, Pa., where he grew up poor in a public housing project. He opened his own free clinic in a van to provide care to the working poor—those who can’t afford to buy private coverage but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. After partnering with Altoona Regional Health System, Gates’ van-based clinic grew into Partnering for Health Services, which provides access to free health care to about 3,500 people in the Altoona area.

For his determination to provide compassionate health care to those most in need and his work throughout the Altoona community, Gates has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Gates will receive the award during a ceremony at Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Md., on November 9.

Gates was inspired by his experience making “street rounds” with Jim Withers, MD, a 2002 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader, who leads Operation Safety Net to provide medical care to homeless persons in Pittsburgh. “When I was caring for the homeless, I realized you don’t need a fancy hospital or clinic to practice medicine,” Gates said. “All you need is your heart, stethoscope, mind, and ears to listen to people.”

As a child, Gates suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Yet his mother, who had already faced more than her fair share of personal tragedies by the time she gave birth to him at age 44, told him not to worry about his difficulties. “It’s what makes you special, and some day you’re going to help a lot of people,” Gates’ mother would tell him.

His mother’s years of hard work and guidance paid off when he successfully completed pharmacy school, then medical school, at the University of Pittsburgh. During his first semester in medical school, his mother died. “My mother was everything to me. I was lost. Looking back, I don’t know how I made it through medical school.”

Years later, Gates founded the Gloria Gates Foundation in tribute to his mother. Today the Foundation provides mentoring and academic enrichment for more than 100 children in two Altoona housing projects, including the one where Gates grew up.

Gates’ clinic, Partnering for Health Services, now has eight volunteer doctors and a handful of paid staff. The clinic provides free care and medications and allows patients to purchase hospital-only insurance coverage for $99 a month to receive surgery and inpatient care at Altoona Regional Health System hospitals.

“This model of coverage proves that access to health care coverage can be expanded affordably,” said Gates, who also works full time as director of the Altoona Community Health Center, a federally qualified clinic that receives government funding to treat underserved and uninsured people. “We need to turn our current model on its head. We need a system where the providers and the insurers actually work together to lower costs and improve care,” he said.

Community Health Leaders National Program Director Janice Ford Griffin said that the selection committee honored Gates for the breadth and depth of his commitment to people most in need. “Gates demonstrates leadership throughout and on behalf of all the residents of Altoona. Through his work in the community, at the Altoona Regional Health System, the federally qualified health center, and the attention and creativity he brings to assuring quality care for the “working poor,” he engages and touches nearly all the lives and institutions in Altoona,” Griffin said.

Debra Beasom, the Partnering for Health Services patient who nominated him for the Community Health Leaders Award, said Gates is able to encourage patients as well as civic leaders to strive to overcome challenges. “When a clinic patient is despondent, Dr. Gates dispenses hope, not just medicine,” she said. “When Dr. Gates sees a community problem, he doesn’t just give up at the slightest obstacle. Instead, he rallies other civic leaders and together they find a solution. Dr. Gates inspires others to help just as he is doing—changing lives one life at a time.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has honored more than 190 Community Health Leaders since 1993. The work of the nine other 2011 recipients includes a program to help people with disabilities safely and confidently handle routine medical exams in Delaware; a transportation and support program for families with children battling cancer in San Diego; a way to ensure access to medical care in the Kansas farm belt; an early detection and treatment of breast cancer program for uninsured and underserved women in Miami; a health education program for Mexican immigrants in Brooklyn, N.Y.; a nurse training program for disadvantaged Hawaiian students; a home health aide services program for Asian Americans in suburban Philadelphia; a rural community health outreach program in the Delta region of Arkansas; and an anti-hunger and nutrition program in New Brunswick, N.J.

Nominations can be submitted for the 2012 Community Health Leaders Award through November 28, 2011. For details on how to submit a nomination, including eligibility requirements and selection criteria, visit

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation established the Community Health Leaders Award to recognize individuals who overcome daunting obstacles to improve health and health care in their communities. Today, there are more than 190 outstanding Community Health Leaders from nearly all states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. For more information, visit

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, measurable, and timely change. For nearly 40 years, the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit

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