Wellstar Health System’s closure of Atlanta Medical Center on Nov. 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 healthcare, according to Mayor Andre Dickens.
Dickens made the comment to a crowd of hundreds at his Buckhead town hall earlier this week, adding his administration is working hard to find a way to keep the hospital open. AMC’s emergency center closed Oct. 14.
“It’s my goal to be able to get it a new operator to bring the hospital back up and make it a place that people of all income levels will want to go,” he said.
AMC is located on Boulevard in rapidly gentrifying Old Fourth Ward. Roughly four miles north of AMC in the wealthy, mostly white Buckhead neighborhood is Piedmont Hospital, which includes an emergency department and many specialty clinics.
The more than 200 people hospitalized at AMC are now being dispersed to other healthcare systems, including Grady, Emory and Piedmont. It is “vital” a new operator be found to operate AMC, he said.
During an Oct. 19 town hall at Cascade United Methodist Church in southwest Atlanta, Dickens said Wellstar’s closing of AMC sent the message it “[doesn’t] want to be in the business of urban health care.”
“Even those of us who have the ability to pay for healthcare, we’re going to be burdened by the closure of Atlanta Medical Center,” Dickens said.
Wellstar, a nonprofit and one of the state’s largest healthcare systems, also closed its East Point emergency department and hospital beds in May. Wellstar converted the facility into a 24-hour urgent care clinic, but now the future of that clinic is uncertain.
The East Point closure means there are no hospitals south of Interstate 20, an issue the city needs to fix, Dickens said.
The Southside of Atlanta has faced ongoing disinvestment, especially after the construction of Interstate 20, the east-west interstate. When the interstate was being planned in the 1950s, Mayor William B. Hartsfield said he wanted I-20 to be a “boundary between the white and Negro communities,” according to the Atlanta History Center.
Lisa Gordon, the city’s chief operating officer, said city officials are meeting with healthcare providers and leaders of nonprofits, for-profits and universities to find a way to “reimagine healthcare so that wherever you are you have access to health care.”
“We have some communities where we don’t have even one doctor’s office,” she said. “And if you look around the community, we have some areas where there’s a saturation.”
The mayor has put a six-month moratorium on any new development plans for the Atlanta Medical Center 25-acre site. The time is needed for the city to review zoning regulations of the prime real estate about a mile from the Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside Trail.
“I placed a moratorium on the property so it can’t become luxury condos in a month or so, because we need a medical center,” Dickens said.
Wellstar said on its website “it is not in active conversations with buyers or developers about the future of the AMC property after closure.”
When Wellstar announced it would be closing AMC, it said it had reported losses of $107 million in just the last year. The pandemic also contributed to financial woes. Wellstar added on its website it has served uninsured patients without public financial support and no funding from the city or state.
The AMC facilities are also outdated for the technology and equipment needed in today’s medical services, according to Wellstar. To “truly modernize the facility” would require a full demolition and rebuild, costing up to $1 billion, the system said.