Georgia Democrats call for investigation into Atlanta hospital closure

Democratic Georgia lawmakers, local officials and the NAACP are asking federal officials to investigate a health care system that closed hospitals in downtown Atlanta and a south suburb, alleging Wellstar Health System has illegally discriminated against blacks and violated the status tax exemption.

State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said Wednesday that she and others filed complaints Tuesday with the IRS and the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“WellStar should be held accountable,” Orok said at a news conference at the Georgia Capitol. “Wellstar should be required to repair the damage that has been done to this long-term system of care for the people previously served by these facilities.”

Based in suburban Marietta, Wellstar last November closed its 450-bed Atlanta Medical Center, a vital health care provider for many low-income residents, just months after closing the smaller Atlanta Medical Center South in East Point. Wellstar had operated both hospitals since 2016 after buying them and others from for-profit Tenet Healthcare Corp.

An email seeking comment was sent to a Wellstar representative. When the system closed the hospitals, he said it had spent more than $350 million to cover losses and make improvements at the Atlanta Medical Center, losing $100 million in the year before the closing. Wellstar said at the time that it had tried and failed to find governments or others to help with sustainable solutions.

But local officials, including Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, responded angrily that Wellstar had given them no notice or opportunity to help. State and county officials poured money into Grady Memorial Hospital — a safety-net public hospital far from the Atlanta Medical Center — to try to pick up the slack. The medical center’s closing meant the loss of the city’s only other emergency room, besides Grady, with a higher-level trauma designation and an obstetrics department where many babies were delivered.

Now, officials want to make Wellstar pay, both legally and financially. Orrock said the nonprofit would have to make a payment similar to the more than $100 million in stock that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia gave to create the Healthcare Georgia Foundation in 1998 after a lawsuit to turn it into for-profit status.

“Wellstar knew what they were doing when they took their resources, they walked away without looking back, laughing all the way,” said Rep. Kim Schofield, D-Atlanta. “It is disgusting, disrespectful and I will send a message to all my colleagues that it will not be tolerated.”

The complaint to the IRS charges that while Wellstar conducted a required study of community health needs under rules for nonprofit hospitals, it failed to implement a strategy to address those needs. Orrock and others cite a 2021 letter from the Atlanta Medical Center’s advisory board saying management proposed and rejected a series of “opaque” and “vague” plans to improve operations and finances, showing a “long-term lack vision and clear direction”.

The complaint to Health and Human Services alleges that Wellstar violated federal law by closing two hospitals that served predominantly black populations while continuing to operate hospitals that served wealthier, whiter people.

“What we’re talking about is nothing more than health care on the part of Wellstar,” Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said. about the color of the skin and the size of the bank accounts in the zip codes where they are.”

Pitts noted that Wellstar not only closed hospitals, but closed or moved practices, meaning patients now have long trips to keep their old doctors.

“Like robbers, they swept through everything that came with the hospitals — the clinics, the primary care doctors, the specialists, the cardiologists, the ones who treat diabetes, high blood pressure, you name it — they packed it all in and took it all. ” Pitts said. ‘They have literally created a health care desert in central and southern Fulton County.’

Opponents are also targeting Wellstar’s negotiations to buy Augusta University Health System, which operates two hospitals in Augusta. They particularly criticized Wellstar’s acquisition of the rights to build a hospital in the predominantly white Columbia County suburb of Augusta and the $105 million the state is providing to buy a new electronic medical records system for the university’s Medical College of Georgia, which will benefit Wellstar .

“You don’t walk away, put the budget for a hospital in Columbia County and turn your back,” Orok said.

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Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeffamy.

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