Wellstar is closing the emergency room and hospital beds at Atlanta Medical Center South

Wellstar Health System in recent years has been exploring options – including a sale or partnership — for its Atlanta Medical Center and an affiliate hospital in East Point.

A different option unfolded Wednesday: Wellstar announced that it’s converting the 200-bed East Point hospital into a primary care, outpatient and rehabilitation center.

The ER and hospital beds will close May 6. The AMC South facility now runs the closest emergency department to Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Wellstar, though, said the majority of patient visits to AMC South emergency room are for lower levels of care that can be better met through primary care,  medication management and other services. ER visits to the AMC South have averaged 140 a day, but just seven led to hospital admissions.

Wellstar’s president and CEO, Candice Saunders, said in a statement to GHN that “we are providing the care that our patients are using and providing it in a way that will help prevent health issues from escalating. We are not closing Atlanta Medical Center South or leaving the community. We are simply enhancing the care that is being used – including primary care, medication care, and rehabilitative care.”

Both of the AMC hospitals have been struggling financially. American Hospital Directory, in data reported earlier this year, listed the two combined with a slight $850,000 profit on $2 billion in revenues. The two hospitals had long suffered problems with aging infrastructure.

Last year, a Wellstar advisory board called for the nonprofit system to inject more resources and more effort into invigorating the two hospitals.

“The evidence of an authentic plan and appropriate strategy appears non-existent for revitalizing the AMC Downtown and East Point hospitals,’’ said a letter from the chairman of the advisory board for the two hospitals, sent to the chairman of the Wellstar Health System board of trustees.

The letter, from Lisa Medellin, chairman of the volunteer board, was obtained by Georgia Health News.

The group’s goal is to ensure that “the underserved and disenfranchised patients/residents are given a voice that results in them having access to the same quality of health care services offered in many of the suburban hospitals that comprise the Wellstar umbrella,’’ the letter said.

Saunders said in a statement Wednesday that “as Georgia’s largest safety net caregiver, we are committed to serve everyone in our community and will continue to do so.”

The Marietta-based system is still looking for a financial partner for the two facilities, industry officials said.

Many of AMC South’s patients were on Medicaid or Medicare, which pay less than private insurance, or were uninsured.

“I know they do have a large percentage of uninsured or underinsured patients that they serve at that facility,” East Point Mayor Deana Ingraham told the AJC.

The area will still have EMS coverage, but ambulances will take emergency patients to hospitals such as Southern Regional Medical Center, Grady Memorial Hospital and the main campus of Atlanta Medical Center.

No employees will lose jobs in the transition.

“We can confirm that of those team members moving, all will continue in the Wellstar Health System, should they choose, with the majority, potentially, serving at Atlanta Medical Center Main,” said David Jones, chief human resources officer for Wellstar.

Wellstar is currently also dealing with a protracted contract dispute with UnitedHealthcare.

The main campus of Atlanta Medical Center has a distinguished history. Originally an infirmary founded in 1901 by a local Baptist pastor who was also a physician, it grew rapidly and was known for years as Georgia Baptist Hospital. Later it became Georgia Baptist Medical Center.

For decades it was one of the state’s most prominent health care facilities, but its fortunes waned after the middle of the 20th century as competition increased and the area where it is located declined economically.

That area is the equally historic Old Fourth Ward of Atlanta, which in the last few years has seen a wave of real estate development and attracted an influx of new residents. Unfortunately, the hospital’s patient mix still doesn’t reflect the economic gentrification of the community, the advisory board’s letter said last year.

Meanwhile, Wellstar AMC South sits in a high-poverty community that, without a hospital, would be a “health care desert,’’ the letter said.

“Both hospitals serve a predominately low-income African-American population that carry the burden of health disparities on almost every chronic disease indicator that is a marker for being at higher risk relative to COVID-19, lower life expectancy and higher health care costs for treatment,’’ Medellin wrote.

Josh Berlin, CEO of the consulting firm rule of 3, said the East Point move to primary care “advances Wellstar’s competitive positioning with Piedmont and Emory, among the advancing independent primary care clinics now around Atlanta, as well as around the Georgia market.”

He added, “The question longer term will be is this a way for Wellstar to amplify its business within Atlanta’s Perimeter, where their core focus is still outside the Perimeter.”

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