Extensive morbidity related to hemodialysis vascular access exists among end-stage renal disease (ESRD) patients, but the risk factors for this morbidity have not been extensively studied. Medicare ESRD patient data were obtained from 1984, 1985, and 1986. Hospitalization for vascular access morbidity (ICD-996.1, 996.6, or 996.7) was analyzed among prevalent patients and, using survival analysis, among incident patients to assess sex, age, race, and underlying cause of renal failure as risk factors. We found that 15 to 16% of hospital stays among prevalent ESRD patients were associated with vascular access-related morbidity. Black race, older age, female sex, and diabetes mellitus as a cause of kidney failure were all independent risk factors for access-related morbidity. The rate ratio comparing Blacks to Whites was 1.12 (95% C.I., 1.09, 1.16); > 64 years to 20 to 44 years, 1.53 (1.46, 1.59); men to women, 0.81 (0.79, 0.84); and diabetes to glomerulonephritis, 1.29 (1.24, 1.35). We conclude that hemodialysis vascular access malfunction causes much hospitalization among ESRD patients. Women, Blacks, the elderly, and diabetics appear to be at particularly high risk, and additional studies are needed to understand these patterns.