Lisa Medellin and Todd Greene saw it coming. The two local leaders served on Atlanta Medical Center’s regional health board and sounded alarms about the potentially devastating consequences that would come if Wellstar Health System closed or failed to revitalize hospitals in predominantly Black areas.
Last month, local lawmakers filed a trio of federal complaints against Wellstar, the nonprofit that operated AMC South in East Point and the AMC campus in Old Fourth Ward. The complaints allege that when Wellstar ceased hospital operations on both campuses, it discriminated against its Black patients and created a health care desert. The lawmakers said they also had evidence that Wellstar ignored the advice of its advisory board.
Every hospital in Wellstar’s system has a regional health board, which advises Wellstar at the local level by offering community input for the hospital system’s programs and services. Attached in the federal complaint to the Health and Human Services Department is a 2021 letter from the regional health board to Otis Brumby III, who was then the chair of Wellstar’s board of trustees.
The letter, which was authored by Medellin and Greene, requested a meeting with Brumby, Wellstar CEO Candice Saunders, and then-interim AMC CEO Kerry Watson to address what they felt was a long-term “lack of vision” and clear direction for the AMC hospitals.
In the letter, the board details its grievances with Wellstar’s “vague” plans to revitalize AMC. Some of those proposed plans included building a women’s pavilion at AMC South, expanding its third-party physician network, and building a new deck at the Old Fourth Ward campus.
Medellin and Greene said the tough language and direct tone of the letter came out of dissatisfaction with Wellstar over proposed plans that never materialized.
“We are struggling in good faith to engage the community with authenticity given Wellstar’s lack of interest in developing and implementing a sustainable strategy to serve the patients and their communities,” the letter stated.
“It came out of frustration, because we were having these bimonthly meetings with the senior leadership of the hospital system and were getting nowhere,” said Medellin, who served as the board’s chair at the time. Medellin stepped down from the board shortly before Wellstar closed AMC South’s emergency room in April 2022.
“I just don’t know how you justify and say that you’re an institution that centers your work on providing equity and health care services for all,” she said. “It’s not to negate the fact that these hospitals were … financially in dire straits, but what is one concrete thing they did to fix that?”
In 2013, Tenet Healthcare Corp. consolidated AMC and South Fulton Medical Center to form one hospital with two campuses. When Wellstar acquired five hospitals from Tenet Healthcare in 2016, the East Point and Old Fourth Ward campuses were struggling financially.
The nonprofit health system did seek a partnership to revitalize AMC in 2020, which could have included a sale or joint ownership of both campuses.
In previous statements, Wellstar said there were potential partners, but they ultimately walked away. Greene and Medellin say they never knew which companies were interested in taking on the two hospitals, adding to what they felt was a lack of transparency from Wellstar’s leadership.
“The Wellstar team had a defeatist perspective about the hospitals to begin with,” Greene recalled. “We, as board members, encouraged them to take a look and explore other health care centers that are operating in urban environments to understand how they could become more sustainable.”
In response to questions from Capital B Atlanta, Wellstar has maintained its commitment to serving the urban areas which the nonprofit entered when it bought the hospitals. Part of that, Wellstar said in a 2021 letter back to the advisory board, included the expansion of primary care services at Inman Krog and Camp Creek, and the replacement of the Interventional Radiology room at AMC in Old Fourth Ward. Ultimately, it was not enough, the health care system said.
“When we announced our search for a solution in 2020, we stated plainly that economic projections of AMC were not sustainable, and that was reinforced with elected officials and the Wellstar Regional Board,” the health care system said in a statement.
Last year, Wellstar partnered with Southside Medical Center in East Point to provide more primary care to the predominantly Black Tri-Cities area. That announcement was made following additional closures of its own primary care offices at or close by the former site of AMC South. A report from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggested Wellstar would close the urgent care that replaced AMC South’s emergency room. Wellstar wouldn’t confirm the report when contacted by Capital B Atlanta.
“Regardless of the outcome at AMC, Wellstar remains committed to serving those who need care across the state,” the health care system said in a statement.
Despite what Wellstar has said they attempted to do for the now-shuttered AMC campuses, Greene said the company is in need of systemic change.
“As a nonprofit organization that’s charged with serving the community, there has to be some level of accountability,” Greene said. “I’m encouraged that these complaints are happening, but also I want to see Wellstar itself take on more responsibility with respect to how it’s going to change its own processes and procedures.”