Imminent Hospital Closure Shakes Atlanta's Healthcare Landscape

Imminent Hospital Closure Shakes Atlanta’s Healthcare Landscape

Like many neighborhoods in cities across the country, Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward is changing.

Condominium buildings and modern minimalist homes punctuate the urban social housing blocks. Many longtime residents of the historic district where Martin Luther King Jr. was born were evicted to other parts of the city.

Atlanta Medical Center, a 460-bed Level 1 trauma center, will be the next fixture to change.

Despite banners proclaiming the hospital’s commitment to the region — “120 years of care for Atlanta,” it reads — its nonprofit owner, Wellstar Health System, recently announced plans to close the doors of the hospital. hospital on November 1.

Georgia has seen several rural hospitals close over the past decade, but this year Atlanta joined other urban centers with facility closings, including a previous downsizing at a facility in nearby Atlanta. East Point.

Wellstar’s announcement fueled political debate over Medicaid expansion ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections. Like 11 other states, Georgia has not expanded eligibility rules for its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, and hospital officials across the state say inaction has hurt their results because they still treat a high number of uninsured patients, many of whom cannot pay for treatment.

Wellstar’s announcement shocked city officials, including Mayor Andre Dickens, as well as other members of the community.

On a recent weekday morning, Teresa Smith, 60, who lives in the neighborhood, said she frequently receives treatment there for a chronic digestive problem. “This hospital will be missed by the whole community,” she said.

Liliana Bakhtiari, a member of the Atlanta City Council whose district includes the hospital, was specific in her assessment. “There will be loss of life and serious injury that goes unaddressed, and I wish that meant more to Wellstar,” she said.

Wellstar declined KHN’s request for an interview about the shutdown.

Nancy Kane, an adjunct professor at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, sees links between the Atlanta situation and hospital closings in other major cities.

Many were acquired by large healthcare companies as part of packages and largely served low-income minority populations.

“If you buy a hospital, you should have an obligation to fix it,” Kane said. “Wellstar has the funds to invest in this hospital. It’s a choice.”

Some community members wonder if the hospital’s closure will lead to expensive real estate development on the roughly 20 acres Wellstar owns in the neighborhood.

Randy Pimsler, an architect whose firm has designed projects in the area, said ‘this could become a blank slate whether it’s redevelopment or new development’.

Politicians were quick to turn the shutdown into a campaign issue. And at the center of the debate is Gov. Brian Kemp’s health care policy.

Kemp’s team is working on a long-term plan to strengthen health care in the area after the shutdown, said Andrew Isenhour, a spokesman for Kemp. Kemp, a Republican who is seeking a second term in November, is unlikely to try to keep the establishment open.

But officials at the nonprofit Grady Health System said this week they met with Kemp’s office, Dickens, and Fulton and DeKalb county officials about a financial injection of state funding that will would meet the capital needs of Grady Memorial Hospital, a Level 1 trauma center about a mile from Atlanta Medical Center.

Grady expects up to 2,500 additional emergency room visits a month after the Atlanta Medical Center closes.

“We can absorb all trauma,” said John Haupert, CEO of Grady Health System. Still, the additional ER crisis will be a challenge as more patients arrive, said Ryan Loke, Grady’s director of health policy.

The state funding would accelerate Grady’s existing plans to convert offices to hospital care spaces, which would add more than 180 adult beds within a year. The hospital is also adding 40 to 45 beds over the next six weeks and plans to set up a 24-bed field hospital to help manage the flow of patients from the closed hospital.

The shutdown puts Medicaid expansion “front and center” in the political conversation, Haupert said. Kemp has proposed a limited plan that would provide access to the state-federal insurance program to people who can fulfill a work requirement or similar obligation.

His challenger, Democrat Stacey Abrams, has long made Medicaid expansion a major campaign issue.

“It’s no longer a surprise,” Abrams said. “This is expected to happen because the Kemp administration refuses to act.”

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which is less than a mile from the hospital, also decried the closure and cited the strain on health care facilities caused by Georgia’s refusal to expand Medicaid. Wellstar officials said the Medicaid expansion alone would not have kept the Atlanta facility open.

Earlier this year, Wellstar stopped providing emergency and inpatient services at its East Point hospital, just southwest of Atlanta. At the time, it was reported that these patients could be seen at Atlanta Medical Center, about eight miles away. Haupert estimated it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the soon-to-close Atlanta hospital, which made a rescue difficult.

The shutdowns within months of each other could help Abrams’ arguments for expanding Medicaid resonate with voters, said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University. “A problem that was probably more suited to rural Georgia suddenly becomes a problem in the Atlanta area,” she said.

Gillespie warned that other issues, such as inflation, crime and abortion, are likely to be more motivating for Georgian voters.

Wellstar, based in suburban Marietta, acquired AMC and East Point Hospital from Tenet Healthcare in an acquisition drive in 2016, in a $575 million deal that included three other hospitals in the metropolitan area.

Todd Greene, a former Wellstar community board member for AMC, said the system is putting more resources into its suburban facilities.

“Wellstar’s suburban hospital-focused management approach has unfortunately prevented large portions of Atlanta’s black and brown communities from accessing nearby and essential health care services,” he said. in a written statement.

In Wellstar’s closure announcement, it said it had invested more than $350 million in capital improvements to the facility since 2016 and suffered “$107 million in losses over the past 12 months only, amid falling revenues and rising costs for staff and supplies due to rampant inflation. »

The decision to close the hospital came as no surprise to some staff, said Dr Sulieman Wazeerud-Din, an emergency physician at the hospital, who said doctors “were aware of the financial losses”.

But the abrupt announcement caused a deep sense of grief among doctors, nurses and other non-medical staff, he said.

In the days after the closure was announced, Grady offered jobs to a range of Atlanta Medical Center employees, from doctors and nurses to housekeeping and security workers.

David Patton has lived in Atlanta’s former Fourth Ward for 30 years and said the Atlanta Medical Center has played a big role in his life.

His grandfather died in a retirement home on campus, he was treated in the emergency room, and his son took swimming lessons at the hospital’s athletics club, all while watching the neighborhood transform from a ‘forgotten’ part of the city in one part it has become a lightning rod for new developments.

“It’s beyond my mind that an institution like this closes practically overnight,” he said.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polls, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

Copyright 2022 Florida Health News

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