“People continue to move out here, but the number of new providers really hasn’t grown in proportion to what the growth is,” Magnolia Pharmacy owner Steve Hoffart said.
The populations of Tomball’s two ZIP codes, 77377 and 77375, increased 12.95% and 33.58%, respectively, from 2015-20, according to the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 5-year estimates. Likewise, Magnolia’s two ZIP codes, 77354 and 77355, have seen a population increase of 17.7% and 18.5%, respectively, from 2015-20, according to census data.
Despite the growth, HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball—a Level III trauma center—is the only hospital in Tomball and the closest hospital for those who live in western Magnolia. At the same time, however, HCA Houston ER 24/7 previously located at 18230 FM 1488, Magnolia, permanently closed May 25, according to signs posted on the doors.
“You just don’t have the facilities, and they’re not located in the right places that will make it easier for someone to get to,” said Timika Simmons, CEO of TOMAGWA Healthcare Ministries, a nonprofit clinic serving uninsured and underinsured residents in Tomball, Magnolia and Waller.
While census data shows the number of health care and social service facilities has outpaced population growth in four of five ZIP codes locally, the number of facilities per 10,000 people remains below the numbers statewide and in Harris and Montgomery counties.
In addition to HCA Tomball, the region is home to a handful of urgent care and emergency clinics and medical offices. However, most provide primary care services, causing challenges for accessing specialty care, especially for those with chronic conditions, said Dr. Bettina Beech, University of Houston’s chief population health officer.
“We’ve seen a plethora of urgent care services, which are sorely needed. But sometimes getting access to specialty care can be challenging—even getting an appointment,” Beech said.
Need for support services
Patients in rural areas experience several challenges with the lack of larger hospitals, health care facilities and specialty care in scheduling appointments, whether it is finding a provider accepting new patients, affordable care, insurance access, specialty care or traveling long distances, Beech said.
To help serve the growing demand and provide more robust services, Simmons said TOMAGWA is pursuing a designation as a federally qualified health care center, a process TOMAGWA began in 2020 that would allow the health center to receive federal grant funds; the clinic is awaiting the release of state funds to help afford the transition.
“In the meantime, the community will struggle because our entire service area is a physician shortage area and a medically underserved area,” Simmons said. “Even people with insurance will have a hard time finding a primary care physician and then those specialists they need.”
In Magnolia, Hoffart said he has tried to address some of the challenges of limited health care access by offering services at the pharmacy. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the pharmacy offered vaccines and testing for strep and hormone and thyroid levels. He said the pharmacy has been slowly rolling those services back out.
In addition, Old Rugged Cross Healthcare is a cash-pay health clinic in Hockley, owner Christy Kern said in an email.
Kern said Old Rugged Cross uses a “direct primary care approach,” which means insurance is not needed.
“I recognized that the lack of health care in the area led to patients having to drive many miles for a simple solution. By opening the clinic in this area, our patients are able to make quick trips to the clinic,” Kern said.
Traveling for health care
Although access to health care varies across the community, Robert Marmerstein, chief executive officer of HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball, said HCA believes access has improved with new roads.
“With the [Hwy.] 249 toll road extension open, travel times to Magnolia and beyond have dropped dramatically. Consequently, access from these areas to our acute care facilities is easier than ever. ... We now have access to HCA Houston Healthcare’s AirLife emergency medical transport services for acute emergencies or traumatic injuries that require more emergent transport,” Marmerstein said in an email.
In addition, Simmons said TOMAGWA offers in-home visits for immobile or very ill patients, a service that has been piloted during the pandemic with hopes to make it a formal program in rural areas.
TOMAGWA also rolled out a partnership with Northwest Community Health, an ambulance provider in Tomball, earlier this year to provide transportation at no cost for TOMAGWA patients to appointments within the service area.
“We’re hoping as we continue to collect data on this relationship, we can work with Northwest EMS to secure even more funding for that so we can expand the number of patients we help,” Simmons said.
Rachel Steele, executive director of city of Magnolia economic development, said in an interview the city has been unable to attract any large health care companies, but the city is concentrating on growing its economic development program in the next eight to 10 months so it can attract more entities, such as health care facilities. However, Steele said she believes it is just a matter of having more houses, which means more people and a greater need for health care.
Marmerstein said in a statement that HCA is actively seeking opportunities to expand urgent or emergency care facilities in Magnolia despite the HCA ER in Magnolia closing.
“Unfortunately, HCA Houston ER 24/7 Magnolia closed on May 25 due to our lease not being renewed. We did not expect to close this facility, but will continue to evaluate potential locations to expand HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball’s footprint in Magnolia and the surrounding communities,” Marmerstein said.
As well, a new 24-hour emergency center will open in Creekside Park in July, Marmerstein said.
Kelly Violette, executive director of the Tomball Economic Development Corp., said she believes Tomball is a medical destination.
“We have had interest from several health care-related companies looking at the Tomball market over the past couple of years. The growth of the area and the aging population has increased demand for services,” she said in an email.
Although local health care experts said health care services are limited in the immediate Tomball and Magnolia area, regional health care players are expanding their footprint in the Northwest Houston region.
West of Tomball, Houston Methodist is building a 400-bed hospital in Cypress off Hwy. 290 that is anticipated to open in the first quarter of 2025, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported.
Several miles east of Magnolia, Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital and Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center each completed $250 million expansions this spring, adding more than 200 patient rooms.
Locally, Simmons said she believes there are plans by TOMAGWA’s hospital partners to expand services, a complicated process that takes time.
“I do believe it’s coming. ... If we did not have to travel to the city for our health care, I think that would keep more residents here and allow us to hold on to our identity,” Simmons said.
Anna Lotz and Jishnu Nair contributed to this report.