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Houston ERs Jammed with Uninsured & Undocumented

HOUSTON -- The latest figures on the median length of time a patient waits for emergency room treatment will not surprise Houstonians, who have been following the worsening crisis in health care in Harris County.

The increase in waiting times for patients going to the nation's emergency rooms -- calculated using data gathered by the National Center on Health Statistics -- is magnified here by large numbers of uninsured citizens and undocumented aliens jamming the city's two top tier trauma centers and other emergency rooms. Many of those patients could have been treated by private physicians, but wait until their illnesses worsen before seeking help that costs far more to provide in an emergency setting.

The report by Harvard University and Cambridge Medical Alliance researchers found that between 1997 and 2004, emergency room patients typically waited 30 minutes for attention, an increase of eight minutes in eight years. The authors concluded that patients are more likely to be harmed by the delays and might give up and leave the facility, resulting in prolonged pain and suffering. While those with life-threatening conditions generally go to the front of the line for immediate treatment, others with serious ailments wait far longer than that 30-minute figure.

Although figures for specific Houston facilities were not included in the study, there's little doubt among local medical experts that the situation is as bad here as it is nationwide. Memorial Hermann emergency room director James McCarthy told the Chronicle the system is at the breaking point. Although major advances have been made in routing incoming patients to the most appropriate facilities, even top-flight ERs like Memorial Hermann periodically overcrowd and ambulances are sent on to other hospitals.

Houstonians don't need more studies to be convinced that their health care system is in crisis. Those unfortunate enough to require emergency treatment and their loved ones learn that firsthand. It's not going to get better until an affordable health insurance system is available to all and the federal government and state help local hospitals deal with the mounting costs of providing emergency care to indigents.

With the primary election less than two months away, voters should focus on county, state and national candidates to see who is talking about the sorry state of our health care system, and who has constructive plans to begin nursing it back to health.

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