As he works to aid South Side residents financially devastated by COVID-19, lawyer Desi Martinez likes to keep a photo of a former U.S. president the back of his mind.
“Jimmy Carter is standing there with a bandana around his neck, his shirt and hair are drenched in sweat. He’s wearing a builder’s cap, and he’s got a hammer and work gloves on,” Martinez told the Current
To Martinez, the photo embodied the 95-year-old former president's hands-on commitment as he built, renovated and repaired more than 4,000 homes for Habitat for Humanity.
This image serves as a North Star for Martinez as he rolls up his own sleeves to help Southsiders financially devastated by the pandemic. The attorney partnered with a neighboring medical clinic to sponsor patients unable to pay for treatment when furloughed by their work place.
“I think if everybody took Carter’s approach, the world would be a better place,” Martinez said. “I can’t affect the world, but I can affect a few people on my side of town.”
Medical Care on the Backburner
Dr. Ray Altamirano runs a direct-pay, family medicine clinic for low-income and uninsured patients in Southeast San Antonio, called Casa Salud
. Patients pay a $100 flat fee upfront to cover the visit, including exam and lab work — a fixed rate that bypasses billing from insurance companies.
“The time came around where I needed to check more labs, but some of my patients were not able to afford it,” Altamirano told the Current
“My demographic was out of work,” the physician added. “They were the bartenders, waitresses, restaurant owners — people in fields deemed non-essential.”
Much of Altamirano’s patient population gravitated to the direct-care model because they work in positions that don’t offer medical coverage. The sudden loss of job left some navigating even more difficult waters when it came to seeking medical care.
Altamirano turned to Martinez, a friend and associate, to advocate for the financial needs of his patients. The attorney sponsored five patients' medical care so they could afford lab work and prescriptions.
“He did it out of his pocket," Altamirano said. "There is no other win for him, just knowing people need help.”
Without that help, the doctor said his low-income patients might otherwise abandon their health care.
“They would put their health last to pay for their light bill or make payments on their home, if it came down to it.”
Collaborating for the Community
Martinez and Altamirano became friends through their work. Both were also born and raised in South San Antonio.
“I really appreciate that he puts his degree and his license where his mouth is,” Martinez said. “And I try to do the same thing.”
Altamirano said his direct-care model relies on other professionals to chip in. In multiple instances, specialists have come to his practice to evaluate patients who couldn’t otherwise pay for the service. Those specialists include orthopedists, cardiologists and nephrologists.
Though he doesn’t expect providers to offer free care, Altamirano said that, when given the opportunity, some are willing to display altruism.
“What I envision for the clinic is this model of larger companies having the opportunity to sponsor patient visits,” Altamirano said.
The physician collaborated with Martinez because of his community-minded approach to business.
“He sponsors efforts for South Side high schools, he does all his business as local as possible," Altamirano said.
As a participant in the juvenile mentorship program and a referee judge to the 289th District Court, Martinez said it is important to him to serve the place he calls home.
Staying True to Their Roots
When Martinez started his law firm in the Brooks City Base area 14 years ago, he realized just how underserved nearby neighborhoods were when it came to legal services.
“What happens on our side of town is you go to school, you do really well, you get a scholarship and you move away from town,” Martinez said. He referred to the concept as “brain drain,” meaning many of the best and brightest end up moving to a more affluent part of town.
“Why not come back and make your side of town something to be proud of? That became a mission to me,” the attorney said.
That absence of South Side legal professionals is similar to the disparity in the medical field.
If you draw a line across San Antonio at the Highway 90, there is a respective eight-to-one ratio of medical providers from north to south, Altamirano said, citing data from the National Provider Identifier.
Altamirano worries that many new doctors end up gravitating toward affluent parts of town because they're looking to pay off the massive debts they incurred for medical school.
“Helping people is why you go to medical school,” he said. “Instead, you end up spending all your time clicking buttons for insurance companies to get paid.”
For Altamirano and Martinez, it's all about serving their side of town. Not only do they do business on the South Side, both have also chosen to raise their families there.
"This area really needs leaders investing back into the community,” the doctor said.
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