Wellstar Health System Atlanta Medical Center closing November 1 will not only hurt the many low-income people it has served for decades, but will also be a burden on those who can afford to pay for health care, according to Mayor Andre Dickens.
Dickens made the comment in front of a crowd of hundreds at his Buckhead Town Hall on October 24, adding that his administration was working hard to find a way to keep the hospital open. AMC’s emergency center closed on October 14.
“My goal is to be able to find a new operator to refurbish the hospital and make it a place where people of all income levels will want to go,” he said.
AMC is located on the boulevard in the rapidly gentrifying Old Fourth Ward. About four miles north of AMC, in the wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood of Buckhead, is Piedmont Hospital. The 600+ bed hospital includes an emergency department and numerous specialty clinics.
The more than 200 people hospitalized at AMC are now scattered across other health systems, including Grady, Emory and Piedmont. It is “essential” that a new operator be found to operate AMC, he said.
“Even those of us who have the ability to pay for health care are going to be burdened with the closure of the Atlanta Medical Center,” Dickens said.
Days before the Buckhead town hall, the mayor held a town hall at the Cascade United Methodist Church in southwest Atlanta. There he said Wellstar’s shutdown of AMC sent the message this “[doesn’t] want to be in urban health care.
Wellstar, a nonprofit and one of the largest health care systems in the state, also closed its emergency department and hospital beds in East Point in May. Wellstar has converted the facility into a 24-hour urgent care clinic, but now the future of this clinic is uncertain.
Closing East Point means there are no hospitals south of Interstate 20, an issue the city needs to address, Dickens said.
Atlanta’s South Side has faced continued divestment, especially after the construction of Interstate 20, the east-west highway. When planning the freeway in the 1950s, Mayor William B. Hartsfield said he wanted I-20 to be a “border between white and black communities.” according to the Atlanta History Center.
Lisa Gordon, the city’s chief operating officer, said city officials are meeting with health care providers and leaders from nonprofits, for-profit organizations and universities to find a way to “reinventing healthcare so that wherever you are, you have access to healthcare”.
“We have some communities where we don’t even have a single doctor’s office,” she said. “And if you look around the community, we have areas where there is saturation.”
The mayor has imposed a six-month moratorium on any new development plans for the Atlanta Medical Center’s 25-acre site. The city needs time to review zoning regulations for prime real estate about a mile from the Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside Trail.
“I’ve put a moratorium on the property so it doesn’t turn into luxury apartments in about a month because we need a medical facility,” Dickens said.
Wellstar said on its website “he is not in active conversations with buyers or developers about the future of AMC ownership after the shutdown.”
When Wellstar announced it would shut down AMC, it said it had reported losses of $107 million in the past year alone. The pandemic has also contributed to financial difficulties. Wellstar added on its website that it served uninsured patients with no public financial support and no city or state funding.
The AMC facilities are also outdated for the technology and equipment needed for today’s medical services, according to Wellstar. “Truly modernizing the facility” would require complete demolition and reconstruction, costing up to $1 billion, according to the system.