“Access to appropriate healthcare” is listed as the number one community health priority in the 2022 Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center Community Health Needs Assessment adopted by the Wellstar Board of Trustees on June 2, 2022.
On August 31, 2022, Wellstar Health System announced that they will close Atlanta Medical Center on November 1, 2022.
Government officials and Atlanta residents are understandably concerned about the impending closure of the 762-bed acute care hospital and Level 1 trauma center. In an August 31 letter to Wellstar’s President and CEO, Candice Saunders, Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens called AMC “a critical element of Atlanta’s healthcare ecosystem” that “serves some of Atlanta’s most vulnerable people.”
A Critical Need for Care
As noted by Wellstar’s own Community Health Needs Assessment, “In the Atlanta Medical Center service area, there is a lack of healthcare facilities and poor distribution of resources in the community, impacting access to care, especially for low-income residents and communities of color.”
Atlanta is one of the “most racially segregated hospital markets” in the United States, according to the Lown Institute, a nonpartisan healthcare-focused think tank, and Wellstar Atlanta is one of only a few hospitals serving a large proportion of patients from communities of color. For more than ten months of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 10% of AMC’s hospital beds were occupied by patients with COVID-19, which disproportionately affected Black, Native American, and Latinx communities.
Fifty thousand of the 65,000 patients who were seen in AMC’s emergency room over that past year are “considered low-income,” according to a CBS46 report, and it remains to be seen where these patients will go for care once Atlanta Medical Centers shuts down. Local officials expect that many area residents will seek care at Grady Memorial Hospital, which already consistently runs over capacity.
The Cost of Providing Care
Wellstar leaders say it was not financially feasible to continue providing care at AMC. They say Wellstar Health System has invested more than $350 million in capital improvements and to support sustained operating losses since 2016, “including $107 million lost in the last 12 months.”
The cost of providing care to an underserved, traditionally under-resourced community is significant. According to the Lown Institute, “Wellstar Atlanta reported that 16% of its operating expenses went to uncompensated care.” (The national median is 3%.) Medicare, Medicaid, and the uninsured account for two-thirds of the hospital’s payer mix.
Rising inflation, which has increased labor costs as well as the price of many medical supplies, exacerbated an already difficult financial situation. Wellstar’s CEO Saunders says the organization conducted “an exhaustive search for a solution that would support the healthcare needs of the community” but did not find a “sustainable solution.”
Investing in Health
Access to healthcare services is critical to the health of the community. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock has sent a letter to Saunders, urging Wellstar to “reconsider the decision” to close AMC “in order to preserve access to health care, particularly emergency care, for patients across metro-Atlanta.” He notes that “the lives of people…depend on the continued operation of your facility.”
To date, Wellstar has not publicly responded to Sen. Warnock’s letter or Mayor Dickens’ request for a meeting to discuss how to mitigate the health and economic consequences related to closing AMC.
Rob Pitts, chairman of Fulton County Board of Commissioners, has been investigating the issue and determined that there is “no legal recourse to prevent this closure.” Pitts said that the County Board of Commissioners is working with “partners in DeKalb County, the State of Georgia, and within the healthcare community” to explore “every option to address the needs of our residents.”As a Georgia-based company dedicated to patient safety, Clean Hands – Safe Hands knows that investments in healthcare improve lives. We also know that innovative solutions are key to controlling costs while navigating complex healthcare challenges. We hope local leaders will invest in the health and well-being of the greater Atlanta community.