Affordable Care Act

Hospital District Bursting At The Seams

A new study of patient demand in Harris County has found that the hospital district is bursting at the seams. Despite opening six new clinics in the past five years, the public health system can't keep up.


At the Martin Luther King Jr. Health Center on the south side, patients can buy fresh fruits and vegetables at a weekly farmer’s market. They can fill a prescription, see a podiatrist, and get new eyeglasses.

But what they can’t always get is a doctor’s appointment.

“There’s no way possible that the doctors can see anymore than they can see.”

Carolyn Bell is the center’s director.

“They’re over-booked, over-capacity, over-worked. So, what we do — we screen and we treat the most acute.”

Surveys have repeatedly shown that a third of adults in Harris County have no health insurance. For most of them, the Hospital District is the medical safety net

The District is partially funded by property taxes, and includes three hospitals, 44 clinics and a dialysis center. Still, it’s not nearly enough.

Dr. Robert Trenschel is in charge of the clinics.

“It’s like pouring 20 ounces of water into a 16-ounce glass. There’s just huge demand, and there’s not enough capacity currently to accommodate that demand.”

For example, every day more than 300 people call the District, but are unable get an appointment with a primary care doctor.

Even returning patients have trouble. Monica Smith sees a doctor regularly for her diabetes and high blood pressure.

“Sometimes you have to wait a long time to get an appointment with him. Because he has so many patients.  That’s just how it is.”

This is the first time the Hospital District has been able to quantify the extent of the problem. Dr. Trenschel did it by culling data from the system’s electronic medical records. He found that most doctors in the District have a heavier patient load than medical groups recommend. And that’s not counting what happens in 2014, when the Affordable Care Act, the new health care law, goes fully into effect.

“This is just where we are right now. As new patients get insurance, as new patients are able to access the system, there’s this concept called pent-up demand so when patients finally get insurance, then the demands on the system really become exponential.”

But Trenschel says that just to meet current demand, the District would need to hire dozens of new doctors, nurses and assistants.

From the KUHF Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.


Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters and the Houston Press Club. Florian is a native of Germany. His studies...

More Information