HOUSTON - Amidst the nationwide battle over the right of Americans to health care, the Hospital Corporation of America announced March 16 that Spring Branch Medical Center here will close by May 1.
For more than 50 years the medical center has served the health care needs of residents of the Spring Branch community in Northwest Houston. The hospital is an affiliate of the HCA Gulf Coast Division. HCA is the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain.
HCA officials attributed the closure of the hospital to "significant operational losses over the last five years."
The hospital has been considered by the Harris County Hospital District for purchase in order to expand its bed capacity. The Hospital District, which provides indigent care, has not added any beds since 1991. Officials continue to study the merits of adding hospital beds for the district. Some see this as needless dithering while poor people are dying from lack of care.
The Houston Chronicle quoted Dr. Ali Azimpoor, a staff neurological surgeon at Spring Branch Medical Center, as saying the announcement of the closing had left the staff "very depressed, with much crying."
'It's a tragedy for the community," said Dr. Azimpoor. "This was the crown jewel hospital in the area."
Doctors have complained about mismanagement, according to the Chronicle article.
The hospital's medical staff received a memorandum from Spring Branch Medical Center CEO Jay Woodall detailing HCA's justification for closing the hospital's in-patient programs. In it he said, "A combination of factors has been building over several years that have led us to this difficult decision. Health care systems everywhere have been strained by reimbursement pressures. One of the most problematic issues is the increasing number of uninsured patients hospitals treat and for which they are not compensated. Texas has the nation's highest rate of individuals without health insurance. In particular, Houston has the highest rate in Texas at 27.8% ... In addition to the issue of uninsured, which all hospitals face, Spring Branch Medical Center has seen an increasing number of patients covered by Medicare and Medicaid. More than 67% of the hospital's in-patient care is provided to Medicare and Medicaid recipients. The level of reimbursement provided by these programs has historically not kept pace with the cost of providing the care."
It is interesting to note that although the population of Houston has grown over the last few years, this corporation has decided to close a major hospital in the interest of increasing its profits. Many see it as a cold-hearted, profit-driven decision that ignores the health care needs of Texans. It provides a powerful argument in favor of universal healthcare coverage. Many people are saying that corporations have no business controlling our health care resources.
Photo: PW/Paul Hill