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Atlanta hospital announces closure, drawing mayor's ire

ATLANTA (AP) — One of Atlanta's largest hospitals said it plans to shut down in two months after experiencing more than $100 million in losses over the past year.
FILEE - A masked man passes Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center on Boulevard in Atlanta on May 20, 2020. WellStar announced late Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, that the Atlanta Medical Center will close in two months after experiencing more than $100 million in losses over the past year. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — One of Atlanta's largest hospitals said it plans to shut down in two months after experiencing more than $100 million in losses over the past year.

Wellstar Health System announced late Wednesday that the Atlanta Medical Center will close Nov. 1. The hospital operates a busy emergency room and is a vital health care provider for many low-income residents.

"For several years, Wellstar has continued to invest in and operate AMC with significant losses to provide more time to partner on a creative, long-term, sustainable solution for the hospital’s future,” Wellstar CEO Candice L. Saunders said in a statement.

But those efforts, including possible partnerships with government agencies, did not materialize, she said.

The announcement immediately became an issue in Georgia's contentious governor's race. It also prompted a rebuke from Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who told Saunders in a letter the city was blindsided by the news and needed “immediate information” about the company’s plans and what it was doing to “mitigate the enormous health and economic impacts the closure will have on our community.”

“Atlanta Medical Center is a critical element of Atlanta’s healthcare ecosystem,” Dickens said. “It serves some of Atlanta’s most vulnerable people.”

Wellstar has run the 460-bed hospital since 2016, but a hospital has operated at that location in downtown Atlanta for more than a century. Its 24-hour emergency room has the highest trauma designation and can provide comprehensive treatment for heart attacks, strokes, brain injuries and other serious medical conditions.

Its closure would leave nearby Grady Memorial Hospital with the only emergency room in the city with the same designation.

The closure will also have economic effects.

“This will be a loss of jobs, a loss of livelihoods and the loss of an anchor for other businesses serving folks that are coming to the hospital,” said Leah Chan, senior health policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

The shutdown will leave an "open wound in the heart of this community,” Dickens added in his letter, noting that the hospital also occupies a significant amount of real estate.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams said Wednesday the closure was “yet another example of the failure of Brian Kemp to serve the people of Georgia.”

Georgia has experienced a spate of rural hospital closures that Abrams and other Democrats say the Republican governor could have prevented had he fully expanded Medicaid. Chan said full Medicaid expansion has helped hospitals in other states stay open by reimbursing care for patients who would otherwise be uninsured.

Gov. Kemp has said that plan would cost the state too much money in the long run and has instead proposed a more limited Medicaid expansion that would require recipients to work or attend school.

Wellstar said a full Medicaid expansion would not have saved Atlanta Medical Center.

Kemp shared community concerns about the effect of Atlanta Medical Center's closure, the governor's office said in a statement. It added that other hospitals and healthcare providers were in “active talks” about how the closure would affect their needs and services.

“As they work to make the appropriate adjustments, Governor Kemp will continue to build on the policy innovations introduced over the past four years that have grown access to quality healthcare while bringing down costs for Georgians across the state,” the statement said.

Wellstar said it spent more than $350 million to cover losses and make improvements at Atlanta Medical Center since taking over the hospital in 2016. The company operates nine other hospitals in Georgia, but recently moved to shut down the emergency room and inpatient beds at another facility — Atlanta Medical Center South.

That hospital was in East Point, also an area with a relatively high proportion of low-income residents.

Wellstar said in a statement it spent more than $915 million last year in “unreimbursed care” for patients across the region and remains a top provider of charity care in Georgia and the U.S.

Sudhin Thanawala, The Associated Press