As a family physician working at an Albuquerque, N.M., hospital, Andru Ziwasimon-Zeller, M.D., was shocked to learn that the hospital was requiring uninsured and low-income patients to pay up front for medically necessary care. When he decided to take up the cause of these patients, he found himself out of a job.

So he turned his attention to creating a better health care system.

As co-founder of the Community Coalition for Health Care Access, Ziwasimon-Zeller became a tireless advocate for “common sense” health policies for disenfranchised patients. “I assisted in a lawsuit and helped to organize a community protest to remove the bad payment policies,” Ziwasimon-Zeller said. He also worked with community residents to open Casa de Salud (“House of Health”), a clinic for low-income and uninsured patients. Today, the unfair payment policies that Ziwasimon-Zeller opposed are gone, and he is tackling broader issues.

In recognition of Ziwasimon-Zeller’s efforts, he was 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.

Community Health Leaders National Program Director Janice Ford Griffin said the selection committee honored Ziwasimon-Zeller for “his peer leadership with community residents to address a range of unfair policies and practices that have an impact on public health, and for his collaborative participation in establishing a community clinic that respects the cultural context and character of that community.”

Ziwasimon-Zeller’s commitment to creating what he calls a “better and fairer health system” started during medical school, when he worked in a clinic in West Africa. The only practitioner in the region was a physician’s assistant, whom Ziwasimon-Zeller described as “the most amazing clinician” who diagnosed his patients with limited resources.

Now Ziwasimon-Zeller puts that skill to work at Casa de Salud, where patients are never denied services based on their ability to pay the $30 cost of an office visit. “We serve some of the poorest people in Albuquerque and what amazes me is how committed they are to paying for our services. They really appreciate the fact that we are their partner in health,” Ziwasimon-Zeller said.

A central mission of Casa de Salud is advocating for public policies to improve access to care. “We are able to use the clinic as a platform for community organizing. We will not hesitate to advise patients to speak up when injustices happen,” Ziwasimon-Zeller said. His advocacy efforts range from working to protect the jobs of medical workers who advocate on behalf of their patients to changing how the state provides care to drug-addicted youth. “We must work to treat young people earlier in their addiction and prevent them from carrying the stigma of arrest and drug abuse for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Ziwasimon-Zeller has a dream of “doing medicine better.” He credits his wife, a natural medicine practitioner, with teaching him a “patient-centered approach to health care,” and the clinicians, staff and organizers who work with him for helping make this dream come true. “Without our clinicians, students and supporters, we wouldn’t have a clinic. I couldn’t do any of this without them,” Ziwasimon-Zeller said.

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