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Harris County health department faces $14M budget deficit

HOUSTON – Harris County's health department is facing a major budget shortfall and the potential impact on all of us, is becoming more clear.

Wednesday, board members passed a budget of $1.3 billion that leaves the department with a huge $14 million deficit. 

This new budget doesn't leave any room to expand operating rooms or add surgeons and that needs to happen if Houston's Ben Taub Hospital wants to keep its status as a Level 1 trauma center.

Ericka Times and Rogene Trail feel like they're the victims of recent budget cuts at Ben Taub.

"You always fighting to get help! There's always a wait here or a wait there," Trails said.

They're here with a relative who has a brain aneurysm and spent all day Saturday in the waiting room. "Ten hours! Ten hours. No joke, no lie, 10 hours!"

With health emergencies and demands on the hospital to expand, board members are left trying to find new money to help meet the county's needs.

"This is not easy. We have over 1 million uninsured residents in Harris County," Harris Health's president and CEO, George Masi said. "To reach out and cover more lives as we'd want to do is beyond our fiscal means."

The American College of Surgeons recently found deficiencies that it says need to be fixed at Ben Taub. The hospital has until November to plan for more operating rooms and surgeons.  

Masi said they will have a proposal ready, suggesting a transformation of some clinics into ORs, but right now the money for construction doesn't exist.

"It would be approximately $90 million which obviously with this budget year isn't on the table," Masi said.

Chief of Staff Dr. Mattox said he doesn't see where this new plan allows for salaries to add additional surgeons, meaning he will have to choose who he can treat in a timely manner.

"If we a have limited number of beds," Mattox said, "we make a priority decision on which patient goes next."

They make those decisions every day at Ben Taub, which means many patients leave before they feel ready.

"You rushing a patient out, they could go home and die, you never know," Trails said.

The budget now goes to the full County Commission for approval. That could happen right away or they could try to come up with a better solution. Until then, what parts of the budget will remain or what it will mean to Ben Taub employees is unknown.