NAACP joins Democratic state legislators in Wellstar lawsuit over Atlanta hospital closings
Claiming Wellstar Health System has illegally discriminated against Black people and violated its tax-exempt status, Democratic Georgia lawmakers and local officials have joined the NAACP in asking federal officials to investigate a health care system that closed hospitals in downtown Atlanta and a southern suburb. Wellstar is a Cobb County business, headquartered in Marietta.
The complaints allege that Wellstar’s decision to close two Atlanta-area hospitals, Atlanta Medical Center and Atlanta Medical Center-South, has damaged the healthcare rights of Black patients and left patients south of Interstate 20 without a nearby emergency room and other medical services.
During a press conference last week, State Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, said she and others filed complaints Tuesday with the IRS and the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The complaint to the IRS charges that while Wellstar performed a required community health-needs study 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 discarded a series of “opaque” and “vague” plans to improve operations and finances, showing a “long-term lack of vision and clear direction.”
The complaint to Health and Human Services alleges that Wellstar broke federal law by closing two hospitals that served primarily Black populations while continuing to operate hospitals that served richer, whiter people.
“WellStar should be held to account,” Orrock said at a press conference at the Georgia Capitol. “Wellstar should be required to repair the damage that it’s caused to this long-established system of care for the individuals formerly served by these facilities. They imposed great harm and that harm continues today. The two hospitals in majority-Black areas closed, while Wellstar hospitals in majority-white areas have remained open, Orrock said.
Wellstar closed the 450-bed Atlanta Medical Center last November, which many considered being a vital health care provider for many low-income residents. This closure came just a few months after Wellstar closed the smaller Atlanta Medical Center South in East Point. Wellstar had operated both hospitals since 2016 after buying them and others from for-profit operator Tenet Healthcare Corp.
When the system closed the hospitals, Wellstar said it had spent more than $350 million to cover losses and make improvements at Atlanta Medical Center, losing $100 million in the year before closing. The hospital claimed that it tried and failed to find governments or others to help with sustainable solutions.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and other local officials pushed back and replied that Wellstar gave them no notice or chance to help. They pointed to help from State and county officials who pumped money into Grady Memorial Hospital — a publicly owned safety net hospital blocks away from Atlanta Medical Center — to try to take up the slack.
The medical center’s closure meant the loss of the city’s only other emergency room beside Grady with a highest-level trauma designation and an obstetrics department where many babies were born.
During her remarks, Orrock said the nonprofit should 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 over its conversion to for-profit status.
Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said, “What we’re talking about is no more and no less than healthcare redlining on the part of Wellstar. It means that they’ve chosen where they will do business and not to do business based on the color of skin and the size of the bank accounts in the ZIP Codes where they’re located.”
Pitts noted that Wellstar not only closed the hospitals but closed or relocated physician offices, meaning patients now have long journeys if they want to keep their old doctors.
“Like bandits, they swept up everything that comes along with the hospitals — the clinics, primary care doctors, the specialists, cardiologists, those who treat diabetes, high blood pressure, you name it — packed them up, and took them all away,” Pitts said. “They have literally created a health care desert in central and south Fulton County.”
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