Georgia policymakers, county officials and the NAACP are asking the federal government to investigate Wellstar Health System’s closure of two Atlanta-area hospitals in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
The latest request came from the Fulton County Commission on Wednesday — it marks the third request in one week to file a federal complaint against the health system.
The first hospital closure occurred last May when Wellstar ended inpatient services and closed the emergency department at 200-bed Atlanta Medical Center South in East Point, Georgia. The hospital diverted patient traffic to its sister facility, Atlanta Medical Center, a 460-bed facility located in the city proper. But in November, Wellstar shuttered the one in Atlanta as well.
Wellstar had operated both facilities since 2016, when the health system purchased five Atlanta area hospitals from Tenet Healthcare. The health system remains one of the largest in Georgia, owning nine hospitals throughout the state.
When Wellstar closed the two hospitals, it said it had spent more than $350 million to cover losses and improve operations at Atlanta Medical Center. The health system also said that the hospital lost $100 million the year before it shut its doors.
The closures elicited outrage from local officials and community members. Both hospitals served primary Black populations, and their closures mean that local residents have to travel further for acute care. To try to maintain some access to care, Georgia and Fulton County funneled money into Grady Memorial Hospital — a public safety net hospital located blocks away from where Atlanta Medical Center used to operate.
“This decision will have deep and reverberating consequences for the half a million residents of Atlanta and the hundreds of thousands of visitors and commuters to our city each day,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens wrote in a letter he sent to Wellstar CEO Candice Saunders two months before Atlanta Medical Center closed.
Dickens’s letter said that Wellstar gave the city no notice about its decision to close the hospitals, and therefore no opportunity to provide assistance.
Backlash over the shuttered hospitals has not died down in the four months since the closure. The recent wave of efforts to take federal action against Wellstar began last week when State Senator Nan Orrock (D) said she and other Georgia lawmakers filed complaints against Wellstar with the Internal Revenue Service..
The complaints say that Wellstar’s tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status should be investigated given that the health system closed two hospitals that serve mainly Black and low-income patients without establishing any strategy to address community health needs.
The NAACP, one of the country’s oldest and largest civil rights organizations, also filed a complaint last week with the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services alleging that the hospital closures violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The most recent complaint was filed with the Department of Justice.
The Fulton County Commission made its complaint with the DOJ because it “has more teeth” than other federal bodies, Robert Pitts, chair of commision, told local news outlet WABE. He also said that Wellstar’s closures “created a healthcare desert in central and south Fulton County” and are “a classic example of healthcare redlining.”
Wellstar denied the allegations that it discriminated against patients and communities of color, calling them “shameful and false” in a statement the health system sent to MedCity News. Wellstar also said that it is the largest provider of charity care in the state of Georgia.
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