When Stacey Hopkins moved from Atlanta to East Point in March 2021, the 59-year-old didn’t think she would be without a neighborhood hospital.
Earlier this month, Wellstar announced that Atlanta Medical Center South would transition into a 24-hour urgent care facility starting May 6. The reason, Wellstar said, is there wasn’t enough business. The closure leaves the mostly Black and medically vulnerable population of the tri-cities southwest of Atlanta — East Point, College Park, and Hapeville — without an emergency room nearby.
With the non-profit Wellstar Health System choosing to close the doors to AMC South’s emergency room, Hopkins worries about her family’s health. Her husband is 69, and suffered from a heart attack and a stroke. Taking away emergency services means families like the Hopkins’ will have a harder time accessing adequate care.
“I’m less than 5 miles away from [Atlanta Medical Center South]. We would have to redirect my husband to [Emory University Hospital Midtown] when there’s a perfectly good medical facility right there in my community,” Hopkins said. “This doesn’t make sense.”
In a statement, Wellstar said AMC South saw an average of 140 patients a day, and only 5% of those patients were admitted to the hospital. Once the ER dissolves, inpatient services will be consolidated to AMC’s main campus roughly 8 miles away in Old Fourth Ward. Now, residents worry about living without the hospital that has served the area for more than 50 years.
Hopkins moved to East Point from Capitol View when her landlord decided to sell the property. Mentally, she says she almost didn’t make it through the move, and the emergency room closure adds another potential burden.
“If you live on this side of town, that’s the only thing you got, besides [Grady Memorial Hospital]” she said. “It is the closest thing to many Black neighborhoods who have historically been denied health care.”
AMC South serves a majority Black population whose uninsured rate skyrockets above the national average of 8.6%. In East Point, where the hospital resides, 17% of the population under age 65 don’t have health insurance. Emergency rooms are legally required to treat uninsured patients under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act. Urgent cares are not bound under this act, but Wellstar said they intend to continue to treat uninsured patients.
There’s also an already stark life expectancy gap for residents south of the city compared to people who live in the northern part of Atlanta, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Residents worry Wellstar’s decision could exacerbate that.
As far as the models go, an urgent care center doesn’t address emergency situations. Instead, urgent care is a bridge between a primary care doctor and the emergency room. However, in situations like a heart attack or a gunshot wound, urgent care facilities are limited in the level of care they can provide.
“This data shows that the vast majority of visits do not require emergency level care, and can be safely and appropriately treated in an urgent care setting,” a spokesperson for Wellstar said in a statement, adding that many of AMC South’s employees will remain at the facility, but others will have to consider moving to the main campus or other facilities.
Sharon Hudson, who attends New Springfield Baptist church in East Point, said she’s found herself frustrated with AMC South when her church members are in emergency situations. Hudson recalls seeing members of her congregation suffer from sharp drops in blood sugar, and how they got rerouted to Grady because of the staffing shortages at AMC South.
“In terms of the time, I don’t think one should have to go 7 miles to Grady,” she said. “But they’re a [trauma center], so they’re better equipped to handle it.”
Local community leaders have asked Wellstar to reconsider, and even suggested having Grady Health System assist in offering emergency services. In a meeting with Grady Health System and Fulton County officials, County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts suggested raising taxes given to Grady so it could keep the emergency room open.
According to East Point City Council member Lance Robertson, he was blindsided by the announcement. Robertson says the move is a regional “slap in the face.” His main concern is a lack of emergency services for patients living in senior facilities nearby.
“They just did not see people, they saw the numbers,” he said. “That’s where you blur the lines and you become very insensitive to the community, contrary to what your core values and your mission statement says.”
A spokesperson for Wellstar told Capital B Atlanta that its emergency room is underutilized, with 80% of residents in the area seeking care at Grady or AMC’s main campus. Monica Ponder, a longtime resident of Atlanta’s predominantly Black Cascade community and professor of public health communications at Howard University, said she’s disappointed about the news but doesn’t find herself surprised by it at all.
“To have a gap where you don’t have convenient access to get the best grocery options, or…in this case, a hospital facility, what does that mean in terms of our sense of safety and connectedness and investment in a city?” she said. “I think there’s a cultural implication here that we also need to look at because what’s the message being told to us about how valuable our health and the maintenance of our health is?”
This story has been updated.