Gates’ healthcare bill sees milestone

Dr. Zane Gates of Altoona has had his share of big days professionally, based on his work as an advocate for better healthcare for the working poor.

Over the last four years, he was named a “health hero” by WebMD magazine, “community health hero” by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and national community service award winner by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

On Tuesday, in Chester, a ceremonial signing by Gov. Tom Corbett of a bill to establish a grant program that could help create a more robust network of state clinics like Gates’ Partnering for Health Services in Altoona superseded all those – all except getting married and having kids, said Gates, who spoke at the event, after being introduced by Corbett.

The official signing of Senate Bill 5 in May enabled Gates and colleague Patrick Reilly to apply on behalf of partner hospitals for a share of the bill’s allocation of $4 million to expand his Altoona clinic and a similar clinic in Indiana, Pa., and to establish new hospital-based clinics in Somerset, Punxsutawney, Pittsburgh and Chester, he said Tuesday.

He thinks there’s a “pretty good chance” of success, he said.

The law establishes the Community-Based Health Care Program to expand and improve health care access and service, reduce unnecessary utilization of hospital emergency rooms and encourage collaborative relationships among community-based health care clinics, hospitals and other providers for low-income patients, especially in underserved areas, according to the Department of Health.

The law applies to a variety of clinic types – nonprofit certified rural health centers, free or partial-pay clinics, nurse-managed clinics, nonprofit hospital clinics and federally qualified health centers and their look-alikes, according to a governor’s news release.

The competitive program – which will become a line item in the state budget, ripe for annual re-funding by lawmakers – offers grantees:

n Up to $500,000 each to create new clinics;

n Up to $200,000 each for expansion of services at existing clinics;

n Up to $200,000 each to add or expand prenatal, obstetric, postpartum or newborn care at existing clinics.

n Up to $200,000 each to create alternative delivery systems at existing clinics.

n And up to $50,000 each to create “collaborative relationships” to ensure hospital patients have a “medical home” in clinics and get timely follow up care in those clinics, according to Gates and a department fact sheet.

The funding may be operational or capital, depending on the situation, said Department of Health Secretary Michael Wolf, who attended the ceremonial signing.

The Department believes it will enable an additional 300,000 primary care visits per year for needy patients who aren’t making those visits now, Wolf said.

Gates lobbied for five years to get the law passed.

It began when he spoke to State Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr. (R-Blair County), who then recommended Gates’ ideas to Sen. Ted Erickson (R-Delaware and Chester counties).

Gates explained his ideas to Erickson by phone, while he was in a stairwell at the Altoona Campus of Altoona Regional Health System, now UPMC Altoona, Gates said.

“The rest is history,” said Eichelberger, who was also at the ceremonial signing.

It was a history that involved lots of visits to lawmakers by Gates, who lobbied “virtually anybody who would talk to him,” Eichelberger said.

Gates and his supporters had difficulty with former Gov. Ed Rendell, who believed the clinics would undercut the Medicaid program.

But Gates argued that Medicaid cards weren’t much good in many areas outside big cities, areas that lacked teaching hospitals with lots of residents who were willing to treat Medicaid patients.

It’s not the doctors’ fault, because they lose money on those patients, Gates said.

The clinic program solves that problem, according to its advocates.

“It gives people a medical home,” said Erickson, the law’s prime sponsor and the senator whose district hosted the ceremonial signing. “You can have all the insurance you want, but unless there’s a place for people to go for medical care, it’s meaningless.”

While Gates is confident the program will fund his proposals, “it’s impossible to say who can get what,” said Michael Wolf, the Department of Health Secretary.

“We’re just beginning the application process,” he said.

All the grants require a 25 percent cash or in-kind match.

“It’s a reasonable expectation” that the plan could eventually become a national model, according to Eichelberger, although the Medicaid model is deeply “ingrained,” he said.

Gates hopes that it could be so, as the program expands and is tested by experience.

Nationally, healthcare reform – which he supports – is trying to do too much at once, he thinks.

“That makes it really difficult,” he said.

At the state level, the new program “is the right thing to do,” Wolf said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.