A look at the state of Houston hospitals

Recent headlines throw health care economy into question

HOUSTON – Hundreds of layoffs in the heart of the Texas Medical Center at MD Anderson Cancer Center, Memorial Hermann and St. Luke's.

READ: Memorial Hermann laying off 350 employees | MD Anderson lays off nearly 900 people; doctors unaffected | CHI St. Luke's Medical Center lays off 459 employee across the state

Also, CEOs are resigning at major institutions.

READ: MD Anderson Cancer Center president resigns | Memorial Hermann CEO steps down after year on job

These headlines in the last few months are throwing Houston's health-care economy into question for employees and patients.

"It was devastating. You know, I really don't know what to do," Marielle Spin said.

Spin is an independent contractor and one of 8,000 Houstonians who learned her Memorial Hermann Health Plan PPO is going away next year.

READ: Memorial Hermann Health Plan to stop offering individual HMO/PPO plans

"I'm grateful that they did offer an alternative to marketplace insurance. I think the problem is more widespread," Spin said.

She said the real issue is the constant increase in premiums no matter which plan you choose. She feels the affordable options are disappearing. She has rheumatoid arthritis and needs prescriptions that cost $2,000 a month.

"It's not just about cost. It's also about the type of coverage that you're getting access to at an exorbitant, you know, crippling cost. It really is crippling," she said.

Patrick Jankowski, senior VP of research at Greater Houston Partnership, said health care is a business just like oil and gas.

"The three things you need to understand about what's going on in the Texas Medical Center right now: one thing is certain, the amount of CEO turnover is inevitable," Jankowski said. "The other is, they're dealing with the uncertainty of the Affordable Care Act. They're dealing with the insurance companies with less reimbursement."

Plus, he said, they're also trying to save money.

"What they're trying to do is just to find way to be more efficient delivering services out there, at a lower cost,” Jankowski said.

If that's true, why are so many hospitals building new facilities? Three major institutions: Houston Methodist, Memorial Hermann and Texas Children's Hospitals are all in the middle of big expansions.

"You always want to see them trying to improve the quality of their infrastructure. I mean, the fact that there are new facilities out there benefits the patient. It means they're getting better-quality care than they were getting just a few years ago," Jankowski said.

President and CEO of TMC Bill McKeon is currently out of town but said by phone the future of health care is uncertain.

"What you're seeing across the country, not just at the Texas Medical Center, is a real shift as the costs continue to escalate and that plans or companies are placing more of the economic burden on employees," McKeon said.

He said while he's sympathetic to patients facing skyrocketing costs, hospitals are trying just as hard to maintain quality of care.

How can they sustain quality and expansion with fewer people?

"In most all cases, when you see layoffs that have occurred in some of our institutions, they've largely been affected in the management side and not on the clinical side, and so I think that's an important distinction to be made," McKeon said. "As you see the landscape of health care in this country and around the world, there are great challenges before us: escalating cost, look at the changes that are happening at the government level about trying to really sort out an acceptable health care plan. It should be a concern to people around the world, and so those are things that we will all be affected by, not just now, but for years to come."

For patients like Marielle, the priority is having reliable, consistent and affordable health care. Right now, she doesn't feel like she has it.

"It's very hard to be canceled year after year after year and have to switch doctors. You can't build a relationship with people," she said.

Historically, TMC ends the year with at least as many people on the payroll as they started with, and McKeon said growth has been consistent for 30 years. He admits TMC leaders are worried about how changes in Washington are going to impact Houston hospitals and the patients they treat.

"But the growth and the strength of our programs are probably second to none throughout the country," McKeon said.

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