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Health needs unmet in some Eagle Ford Shale areas

Peggy O’Hare, The San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO — While the Eagle Ford Shale has delivered a bounty of jobs to South Texas, the area’s population remains poorer than average and many people lack health insurance, according to a new study funded by Methodist Healthcare Ministries.

At the same time, traffic accidents in the busiest production areas have increased, and it has become increasingly difficult to recruit medical workers, researchers found.

Those were among several findings unveiled Tuesday at the Eagle Ford Consortium’s third annual conference in San Antonio. The full report, “Fractured Health Care: Pumping Resources Back Into the Eagle Ford Shale Communities,” will be published May 27.

The study spotlights existing health care infrastructure and unmet medical needs in an 18-county area in the oil and gas drilling region More than 2.3 million people lived in the 18-county area last year, which spans 24,000 square miles and stretches from Edwards, Kinney and Maverick counties in the west, to Webb, McMullen, Live Oak and Bee counties in the south and to Gonzales and DeWitt counties in the east.

The University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute for Economic Development conducted the research and interviewed industry officials, community health centers, doctors, emergency medical services, fire departments and elected officials. About two dozen people listened as several of the study’s findings were detailed Tuesday during a panel discussion.

“This is just a starting point… How do we all play a role in creating a solution for the health-care needs and demands that are being projected in the Eagle Ford Shale?” said Rebecca Brune, Methodist Healthcare Ministries’ vice president for strategic planning and growth.

The study found a wide variance from county to county both in terms of population and available medical facilities, said Dr. Thomas Tunstall, the institute’s research director.

For instance, McMullen County, a sparsely populated area with just 700 to 800 residents, has no hospitals, clinics or primary-care physicians, nor any fire departments or ambulance services based in its jurisdiction, Tunstall said. Yet, that county recorded the region’s biggest percentage increase in traffic accidents between 2009 and 2011, as well as the biggest percentage spike in workforce injuries from 2010 to 2011, the study found.

Webb County, by contrast, has three hospitals, 10 clinics, 108 primary care doctors, nine fire departments and 26 ambulance providers — and its percentage of work-related injuries declined, while its percentage of traffic accidents marginally increased, the study found.

Researchers found the region’s average income per capita was below the national average in 2012, ranging from nearly $11,000 in Maverick County — which is seeing far less drilling than in counties farther north — to $25,400 in Bexar County. That’s compared to a national average of $28,000. McMullen County, which is seeing significant drilling activity, was the only county to surpass the national average, with an average per capita income of $33,000 that year.

The research revealed more than half of the patients cared for by federally qualified health centers or community health centers in the region — 51 percent — were uninsured in 2011. Only 16 percent had private health insurance, while 23 percent were covered by Medicaid, 8 percent by Medicare and 2 percent by other publicly funded programs.

“There are a significant number of uninsured folks, which is probably one of the surprises that we found in the study,” Tunstall said. “We assumed that because the oil and gas industry tends to pay higher wages and a lot of their folks will tend to have insurance, that the number of insured people would increase across the Eagle Ford. But the reality is that activity drives a lot of activity in other types of industries, which may not necessarily offer insurance — subcontractors and restaurants and other types of businesses.”

Researchers’ interviews revealed the region has a shortage of health-care providers, particularly in family and women’s care. At the same time, the area is seeing an increase in chronic diabetes, obesity, cancer, asthma, flu and allergies, while sexually transmitted diseases, sleep deprivation and dehydration have also increased, the interviews revealed.

One of the study’s drawbacks was the low response rate to researchers. They attempted to interview hundreds of community and health care officials. But only 13 elected officials, seven doctors, four community health clinics and one hospital responded, Tunstall said. Interviews with 65 industrial sources were conducted.

The full study can be downloaded May 27 at Methodist Healthcare Ministries’ website at www.mhm.org

pohare@express-news.net 

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