A group of local lawmakers is alleging that Wellstar Health System discriminated against its Black patients when the nonprofit hospital system closed two hospitals in 2022.
On Wednesday, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution sponsored by Chairman Robb Pitts calling for the county attorney to file a complaint with the Department of Justice, in addition to previous grievances.
Last week, Pitts joined state Rep. Kim Schofield and state Sen. Nan Orrock alongside many Atlanta-area lawmakers and the NAACP in announcing that they had filed a pair of complaints to the Internal Revenue Service and the civil rights division of the federal Health and Human Services Department.
“These two hospitals serve the largest populations of Black patients of any of the 10 hospitals Wellstar has owned,” the complaint states, referencing the closures of Atlanta Medical Center in Old Fourth Ward and Atlanta Medical Center South in East Point. “Wellstar should be held to account and required to repair the damage it has caused to a long-established system of care for the individuals formerly served by these facilities and the medical practices associated with or dependent upon them.”
In the 15-page civil rights complaint, the lawmakers allege that Wellstar violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states that any program that accepts federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. By closing Atlanta Medical Center South’s emergency room in May 2022 and Atlanta Medical Center in November, lawmakers said Wellstar harmed the Black communities both hospitals served.
“You’re waiting 30 minutes to an hour to get taken to a hospital location, maybe Downtown and stuck in traffic, or Henry County,” said East Point City Councilor Karen Rene. Wellstar replaced Atlanta Medical Center South’s ER with an urgent care facility that originally operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Now it operates from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“In Black and brown communities, our health disparities are greater. We have high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart attacks. You only have minutes to deal with some of those issues,” she continued. “Health care is really a needed resource; we’re all impacted by this.”
In the IRS complaint, lawmakers and leaders accuse Wellstar of disregarding the content of its community health needs assessment, a requirement for nonprofit health facilities. Those needs include addressing financial and other barriers to accessing care. By allegedly disregarding it, lawmakers say it’s reasonable to take away Wellstar’s nonprofit status.
The complaints come as Wellstar is in negotiations to partner with Augusta University Health System for potential expansion of services in Columbia County. The move, which Wellstar announced in December, incensed local lawmakers and caused them to question whether Wellstar desires to serve poor Black people.
“What you may not know is that Columbia County is a community of about 160,000 people that is 71% white,” said Pitts, the Fulton commissioner. “Columbia County also has a median household income of almost $86,000.”
Pitts also pointed out that Wellstar still operates in Roswell, a much wealthier area of northern Fulton County where the median income is $111,000.
In comparison, East Point, where AMC South was based, has a median income of a little more than $50,000, and 23% of the population lives in poverty.
In a statement sent to Capital B Atlanta, Wellstar dismissed the claims of the lawmakers as “outrageous and false,” citing attempts to sell the AMC properties and find a “sustainable path forward.”
“We connected with healthcare organizations locally, regionally and across the country,” the health system said of the attempt to sell. “Potential partners expressed interest, but ultimately, none were interested.”
The pattern of continuing to operate in wealthier, whiter areas caused lawmakers to question not just Wellstar’s decision to close the hospitals, but also to shift much of its primary care and employees to Cobb County, where the headquarters for the nonprofit are based.
“Some physicians’ primary care and specialty practices are now based in far less diverse, and in some cases wealthier, suburban communities near other Wellstar hospitals,” the complaint states.
Attached in the civil rights complaint is a letter from Atlanta Medical Center’s advisory board addressed to Otis Brumby III, the former chair of the board of trustees of Wellstar.
The letter from the advisory board, which doesn’t have any authority over Wellstar’s operating decisions, claims that Wellstar had a “long-term lack of vision and clear direction for the AMC hospitals.” Before the AMC South closure, the advisory board pointed out in the letter that without the East Point location, the Tri-Cities area would become a health desert.
“We have provided numerous suggestions on how AMC could become leaders in healthcare for the community and vanguards in how to deliver healthcare effectively and efficiently that seeks to reduce health inequities in partnership with urban communities,” the advisory board wrote to Brumby. “These ideas have not been taken seriously nor have any of the opaque plans developed by Wellstar ever transpired.”
Alyasah Sewell, an associate professor of sociology at Emory University, said they believe the health care organization isn’t living up to its charitable care standards.
“At this point in time, your health care providers, I would question whether they have a nonprofit interest in serving people. Wellstar clearly does not have a fiduciary ethic in fulfilling their nonprofit status,” they said.
Part of the civil rights complaint points out that Grady Memorial Hospital remains the only Level 1 trauma center in the city, and absorbed AMC’s overflow, leaving the city’s emergency medical system in even more strained.
Some local leaders say they want to take things into their own hands, especially since complaints to the Office of Civil Rights can take years to resolve. Some potential ideas being discussed are focused on how to bring more health care options to residents living south of Interstate 20 in Fulton County. One of those includes opening a new hospital authority, which would oversee the operations of a new, publicly owned medical facility.
State Sen. Donzella James, who represents parts of Fulton and Douglas counties, says opening up a new hospital authority could run into issues with the state’s “certificate of need” system. To get approval, proposed medical facilities must complete a certificate of need application to show that building hospitals, labor and delivery units, or birth centers is necessary for the community. It’s a model that has been criticized nationwide for creating hurdles that stifle newcomers to the market.
But overall, James insists that “we know we need to do something ourselves,” but Wellstar’s decision to close two hospitals in predominantly Black communities “was illegal.”
This story has been updated.