Imminent hospital closure shakes Atlanta healthcare landscape and race politics

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

Modern minimalist design apartment buildings and homes punctuate low-income city blocks. Many residents of the historic district in which Martin Luther King was born, have been driven to other parts of the city.

Atlanta Medical Center, a 460-bed Level I trauma center, will be the next major item to change.

Despite signs announcing the hospital’s commitment to the area — “120 years of care for Atlanta,” as one reads — its nonprofit owner, Wellstar Health System, recently announced plans to close the hospital’s doors on November 1.

Georgia has seen the closure of many rural hospitals in the past decade, but this year Atlanta joined other urban centers by closing facilities, including an earlier downsizing of a facility in nearby East Point.

Wellstar’s announcement sparked political debate about expanding Medicaid ahead of the November 8 midterm elections. Like 11 other states, Georgia has not expanded its Medicaid eligibility rules under the Affordable Care Act, and hospital officials across the state say the inaction has hurt their bottom line because they are still treating large numbers of uninsured patients, who cannot Many of them pay for it. treatment or treatment.

The Wellstar announcement shocked city officials, including the mayor, Andre Dickens, as well as other members of the community.

On a recent week morning, Teresa Smith, 60, who lives in the neighborhood, said she is often cared for there because of a chronic digestive problem. “The whole community will miss this hospital,” she said.

Liliana BakhtiariThe Atlanta city councilwoman, whose district includes the hospital, was sharp in her assessment. “There will be loss of life and serious injuries that will not be dealt with, and I hope that is even more important to Wellstar,” she said.

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

Nancy KeeneD., an assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, sees links between the situation in Atlanta and hospital closures in other major cities.

Several large healthcare companies have been acquired as part of a package of deals, largely serving lower-income minorities.

“If you get a hospital, you have to commit to fixing it,” Kane said. “Wellstar has the money to invest in this hospital. It’s a choice.”

Some members of the community are questioning whether closing the hospital will lead to an expensive real estate development on the approximately 20 acres Wellstar owns in the neighborhood.

Randy Bemsleran architect whose firm has designed projects in the area, said “it could become a blank canvas, either for redevelopment or for new development.”

Politicians were quick to turn the conclusion into an electoral issue. At the center of the debate is Governor Brian Kemp’s health care policy.

Kemp’s spokesman Andrew Eisenhauer said Kemp’s team is working on a long-term plan to boost healthcare in the area after the lockdown. Kemp, the Republican who is running for a second term in November, You are less likely to try to keep the attachment open.

But officials at the nonprofit Grady Health System said this week that they met with the office of Kemp and Dickens and officials from Fulton and DeKalb counties about the financial leak of government funding that will support capital needs at Grady Memorial Hospital, a Level I trauma center. About a mile from Atlanta Medical Center.

Grady expects up to 2,500 more emergency room visits a month after Atlanta Medical Center closed its doors.

We can absorb all the shocks,” said John Hubert, CEO of Grady Health System. The additional emergency will be a challenge as more patients arrive, said Ryan Locke, Grady’s chief health policy officer.

Government funding will accelerate Grady’s current plans to convert offices into inpatient care spaces, which will add more than 180 beds for adults just a year from now. The hospital is also adding 40 to 45 beds over the next six weeks, and plans to install a 24-bed field hospital to help handle the influx of patients from the closed hospital.

Hubert said the conclusion puts Medicaid’s expansion “front and center” in the political conversation. Kemp proposed a limited plan that would provide access to the state’s federal insurance program for people who could meet work requirements or a similar obligation.

His rival, Democrat Stacy Abrams, has long made Medicaid expansion a major issue in his campaign.

“This is no longer a surprise,” Abrams said. “It is expected that this will happen because the Kemp administration is refusing to take action.”

US Senator Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia), pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, less than a mile from the hospital, also decried the closure and noted the strain on health care facilities over Georgia’s refusal to expand Medicaid. Wellstar officials have said that Medicaid expansion alone won’t keep the Atlanta facility open.

Earlier this year, Wellstar stopped providing emergency room and inpatient services at its East Point, southwest Atlanta hospital. At the time, she said, those patients could be seen at Atlanta Medical Center, about 8 miles away. Haupert estimated that upgrading the soon-to-close Atlanta hospital would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, which made the rescue difficult.

He said the shutdowns that are only a few months apart may help advance Abrams’ arguments for expanding Medicaid to voter acceptance. Andra Gillespie, Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University. “An issue that might have been more tailored toward rural Georgia now suddenly became an Atlanta-area issue,” she said.

Gillespie cautioned that other issues, such as inflation, crime and abortion, are likely to be more stimulating to Georgia voters.

Wellstar, based in a suburb of Marietta, has acquired AMC and East Point Hospital from Tenet Healthcare. During the acquisition in 2016part of a $575 million deal that included three other metro area hospitals.

Todd Green, who was a former member of AMC’s Wellstar Community Board of Directors, said the system put more resources into its suburban facilities.

“The Wellstar management’s approach to suburban hospitals has unfortunately resulted in significant portions of Atlanta’s black and brown communities not having access to proximity and critical health care services,” he said in a written statement.

in Wellstar closing announcementsaid it had invested more than $350 million in capital improvements at the facility since 2016 and had incurred “$107 million in losses in the past 12 months alone, amid lower revenue and increased personnel and supply costs due to higher inflation.”

Dr. said. Sulaiman Minister of Religionan emergency medicine physician at the hospital, said the doctors “were aware of the financial losses.”

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

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

David Patton has lived in Old Forth Ward, Atlanta for 30 years and said Atlanta Medical Center has been a big part of his life.

His grandfather died in a nursing home on campus, he received care in the emergency room, his son took swimming lessons at the hospital gym, all while seeing the neighborhood transform from a “forgotten” part of the city to one that became a blocker on the new development.

“It baffles me that an institution like this would actually shut down overnight,” he said.

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