Indigent care catastrophe courtesy Harris Health

By George Scott | Special to the Katy Times
Posted 8/6/20

When the public Harris Health system acquiesced or conspired with the Harris County Commissioners’ Court several years back to slash the number of hospital beds in half at its Ben Taub and LBJ …

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Indigent care catastrophe courtesy Harris Health

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When the public Harris Health system acquiesced or conspired with the Harris County Commissioners’ Court several years back to slash the number of hospital beds in half at its Ben Taub and LBJ Hospitals, it and county leaders charted a self-destructive path that would inevitably endanger its indigent patients as it has during the current COVID-19 crisis.

Charting a fool’s path in the absurd notion that public health had to ‘compete’ with the private sector for indigent healthcare patients in one of the largest and still-growing metropolitan areas of the United States was public policy insanity at its inception.

By choosing the ideological ambience of healthcare over the stark reality of dramatic and persistent and never-not-growing need in Harris County, it sabotaged its mission and jeopardized its patients.

The specter of Ben Taub losing its Level I trauma status is much more than a rhetorical scare tactic.

The current consequences?

With COVID-19’s vicious surge overwhelming the strategic and purposefully-slashed capacities of Ben Taub and LBJ Hospitals, into the hundreds of indigent patients with a range of vital, medical needs such as actual cancer treatment and range of other time-sensitive medical procedures that would make a mockery of the notion of ‘elective’ care wait and wait and wait and still wait.

Tragically, it took the COVID-19 crisis to expose the predictable consequences of phony compassion coupled with malfeasant public policy.

From the early days of March through July, Harris Health and Harris County have quarantined the empirical reality of the consequences on the incredible healthcare needs of the community’s indigents statistically dominated by patients of color. When will the decision makers who created this problem and those that have come after them commit to revealing the statistical truth behind the human beings who have and are been damaged?

However, what Harris Health and the county did to itself is but chapter one of this saga.

Chapter two is the story of the broader medical community’s apparent disinterest or unwillingness to accept reasonable numbers of transfers to help at least ease the plight of indigents in the Harris Health system with serious medical needs not labeled COVID-19.

There is no assertion to be made here that all hospitals in Harris County have not confronted enormous challenges over the past five months with more to come. Likewise, there is no intent to use this column to bury readers in numbers at this point.

However, thanks to data reporting by a regional healthcare advisory council known as SETRAC, we can strongly deduce (but not prove) that major private or non-profit hospitals not named Ben Taub or LBJ were better able to protect the delivery of time-sensitive medical needs to its patients during this period.

These missing numbers are knowable and the people who know the numbers are knowable. It will take political or journalistic courage to get to the bottom of this. The public system needed and deserved some relief from the broader healthcare community despite its own role in creating its situation.

Big questions:

Did the public health system ask its fellow hospitals for temporary help in accepting transfers?

Did powerful forces in the Texas Medical Center and others directly aligned with major hospitals play hardball with Harris Health in its time of need?

On a day by day basis, did the broader medical community understand how the public health system saves it ‘financial bacon’ every day of every year pre-COVID and will return to doing post-COVID?

Finally, consider these facts:

Over the past two decades, Harris County taxpayers have pumped literally billions of property tax dollars into the public health care system.

Were it not for that, the profits and the cash flows of the private and non-profits alike would have been financially devastated.

Bottom lines:

Harris Health and commissioners must reverse course; must undo what it did; and restore the draconian cuts in hospital capacity while protecting Ben Taub’s Level 1 Trauma status.

The broader public health community from the Texas Medical Center to the major private and non-profit hospitals should recognize the daily impact the Harris Health system literally has on their financial viability. Stop playing political hardball with the health and safety of the public system’s indigent patients in times of crisis.

The commissioners’ court should put at least some new Harris Health board members that will be proactive, aggressive, and ‘in-your-face’ advocates for public healthcare – not just in name but in reality.

George Scott is the former president of a Harris County non-profit public policy research group – Tax Research Association which was funded by many of the major energy, legal, and industrial corporations of Harris County. During that time, he served as a member of then-Harris County Hospital District Board of Managers in 1999 and part of 2000. He is recognized as having been an advocate for the restoration of Harris County’s financial support of that organization now known as Harris Health. He is also a former member of the Katy ISD Board of Trustees.

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