Despite banners proclaiming the hospital’s commitment to the area — “120 Years Caring For Atlanta,” one reads — its nonprofit owner, Wellstar Health System, recently announced plans to close the hospital’s doors on Nov. 1.
Georgia has seen several rural hospitals shutter in the past decade, but this year Atlanta has joined other urban centers with facility closures, including a previous downsizing at a facility in the nearby city of East Point.
The Wellstar announcement has stoked the 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 bottom lines because they still treat high numbers of uninsured patients, many of whom cannot pay for treatment.
The Wellstar announcement shocked city officials, including the 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 care there for a chronic digestive issue. “This hospital will be missed by the whole community,” she said.
, the Atlanta City Council member whose district includes the hospital, was sharp in her assessment.
Wellstar declined KHN’s request for an interview about the closure.
, an adjunct professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, sees connections between the Atlanta situation and hospital closures in other major cities.
Many were acquired by large health care companies as part of package deals, and served largely low-income, minority populations.
Some community members wonder whether the hospital closure will lead to a pricey 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 “it could become a blank slate, either for redevelopment or for new development.”
Politicians have been quick to turn the closing into a campaign issue. And at the center of the debate is Gov. Brian Kemp’s health care policy.
The Kemp team is working to put together a long-term plan for strengthening health care in the area after the closure, said Andrew Isenhour, a Kemp spokesperson. Kemp, a Republican who’s running for a second term in November
But officials at the nonprofit Grady Health System said this week that they have met with Kemp’s office, Dickens, and officials from Fulton and DeKalb counties about a financial infusion of state funding that would support capital needs at Grady Memorial Hospital, a Level 1 trauma center about a mile from Atlanta Medical Center.
Grady is expecting as many as 2,500 extra emergency room visits a month after Atlanta Medical Center shuts its doors.
“We can absorb all the trauma,” said John Haupert, CEO of Grady Health System. Still, the added ER crunch will be a challenge with more patients arriving, said Ryan Loke, chief health policy officer for Grady.
“It boggles my mind that an institution like that would just shut down virtually overnight,” he said. (U/KHN)