Rural Texas has a severe shortage of doctors.
Kent County has not had a doctor in 53 years.
"The last one we had died in 1954," County Judge Jim C. White said matter-of-factly. "When we need medical care we go to Lubbock or Abilene or to the district county hospital in (neighboring) Fisher County."
The community of 734 residents, down from 859 in the 2000 Census, is not the only county in West Texas without a physician.
Twenty-seven other counties in the region do not have a physician, said Dr. Steven Berk, dean of the School of Medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
"It is definitely a very critical problem," said Berk, who is interim vice president of the F. Marie Hall Institute for Rural and Community Health at Health Sciences Center. "We have a shortage of doctors in the United States but it is more severe in West Texas."
The Office of Rural Community Affairs is aware of the severity of the physician shortage. That's why ORCA is offering stipends of up to $15,000 to physicians willing to work in a rural community for at least a year.
"We hope to get some doctors interested," said Theresa Cruz, director of the rural health division at ORCA. "We are seeing a downward trend of applicants. Most doctors, especially those just out of medical school, are not all that interested in moving to rural areas."
The Texas Health Service Corps Program has been around since 2001 and on average, the agency gets about five applicants a year, Cruz said. The deadline to apply for the stipends is May 28.
Berk said there are several reasons for the growing shortage of doctors everywhere.
First, the medical profession didn't recognize that a shortage was on the horizon until about five years ago.
In addition, young physicians don't want to work as many hours as their older peers.
And for rural areas, there is an additional problem. Fewer and fewer medical students are going into family medicine because they don't make as much money as they can in specialized medicine, Berk said.
Proposition 12, and the far-reaching changes in Texas civil law that it dragged behind it, was built on a foundation of mistruths and sketchy assumptions. The number of doctors in the state was not falling, it was steadily rising, according to Texas Medical Board data. There was little statistical evidence showing that frivolous lawsuits were a significant force driving increases in malpractice premiums.
Perhaps the most insidious sleight of hand employed by Proposition 12 backers was their repeated insistence that medical malpractice insurance rates were somehow responsible for doctor shortages in rural Texas.
"Women in three out of five Texas counties do not have access to obstetricians. Imagine the hardship this creates for many pregnant women in our state," Gov. Rick Perry told a New York audience in October 2003 at the pro-tort-reform Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. "The problem has not been a lack of compassion among our medical community, but a lack of protection from abusive lawsuits."
The campaign's promise, that tort reform would cause doctors to begin returning to the state's sparsely populated regions, has now been tested for four years. It has not proven to be true.
On a Texas map inside the beguiling-baby mailer, blood red marked the 152 counties in Texas that did not have obstetricians in 2003. Rural doctor shortages were kept front and center as the state's physicians, led by the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, campaigned for Proposition 12.
A flier printed by the TMA in English and Spanish and posted in waiting rooms across the state told patients that "152 counties in Texas now have no obstetrician. Wide swaths of Texas have no neurosurgeon or orthopedic surgeon. ... The primary culprit for this crisis is an explosion in awards for non-economic (pain and suffering) damages in liability lawsuits. ... vote "YES!" on 12!"
As of September 2007, the number of counties without obstetricians is unchanged--152 counties still have none, according to the Observer's examination of county-by-county data at the state Medical Board.
Nearly half of Texas counties--124, or 49 percent--have no obstetrician, neurosurgeon, or orthopedic surgeon. Those specialists aside, 21 Texas counties have no physician of any kind. That's one county worse than before Proposition 12 passed, when 20 counties had no doctor.