In case you missed it, there have been a few major developments connected to Wellstar’s decision to close two Atlanta Medical Center facilities in predominantly Black areas.
It’s been just over a month since two Black former board members spoke to Capital B Atlanta about Wellstar Healthcare System’s “defeatist” attitude leading to the closures of AMC South in East Point and AMC in Old Fourth Ward.
Since then, Morehouse School of Medicine and Fulton County released a study about health care challenges exacerbated by the closures, while Wellstar Health System merged with Augusta University Health. Meanwhile, Grady Health System, Morehouse School of Medicine, and Fulton County have potential solutions to addressing the health care gaps.
Here are the latest updates.
Morehouse and Fulton County’s study
In April, Morehouse School of Medicine and Fulton County released a study that showed the closing of Wellstar hospitals — Atlanta Medical Center South in May 2022 and Atlanta Medical Center (AMC) in November 2022 — created a public health emergency.
The report, “How should Fulton County respond to Wellstar closures and address the public health emergency?” looked at the state of health care and social services in Fulton. The study also delved into how the closures made an already struggling health care landscape worse.
When Wellstar closed AMC South in East Point, the health care system also closed nearly 15 additional medical clinics, leaving many in the predominantly Black area with limited options.
“Because of the Wellstar closure, people have had to seek care from other facilities, potentially crowding those facilities and causing more problems with delays,” said Dr. Adrian Tyndall, dean and executive vice president for health affairs at Morehouse School of Medicine.
Because of the closures, residents must drive 10 to 20 minutes longer to get to a hospital. At those hospitals that are still open, wait times for emergency room patients have exceeded that of the national average of 188 minutes, the study says.
“Ambulances now have to travel longer in order to take people to destinations further away in order to provide care … and that then causes even more issues with crowding in those facilities,” Tyndall said.
At Grady Memorial Hospital, emergency room wait times are exceeding six hours. At Emory University Hospital Midtown, the ER wait time is over five hours. At Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, patients are waiting more than three hours.
Residents in South Fulton have the lowest access to health care, the study states. The life expectancy for those who live in south and central Fulton is five years less than residents who live in the much wealthier areas.
Much of that could be solved, experts say, by addressing the social determinants of health that cause the disparities. In south and central Fulton, for example, the study shows that those areas have “high unmet needs on community and social supports.”
Morehouse School of Medicine experts suggest addressing the issues caused by the closure by leveraging current providers in the areas and establishing partnerships for new care.
Wellstar merging with Augusta University
Wellstar finalized an agreement to take over Augusta University Health System. The move, endorsed by Gov. Brian Kemp, creates a partnership where Wellstar will pour millions of dollars into a health system in Columbia County.
In March, months after Wellstar first announced the potential merger, 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 U.S. Department of Justice, in addition to previous grievances.
“What you may not know is that Columbia County is a community of about 160,000 people that is 71% white,” Pitts said at the time. “Columbia County also has a median household income of almost $86,000.”
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.
Looking for solutions
Grady Health System and Morehouse School of Medicine are both opening new clinics to serve the central and southern Fulton areas
Grady Health System is opening two new outpatient centers “to meet Atlanta’s rapidly growing healthcare needs,” the system said.
“We have listened to our community and paid close attention to the areas that need more health services,” said John Haupert, president and CEO at Grady. “We conducted research and identified these neighborhoods that have seen significant population growth but have historically lacked access to primary and specialty care.
The new centers will be located south of Interstate 20, where there is an increased demand for more health care access. The Lee and White Outpatient Center will be in the West End. The Cascade Outpatient Center will be in the Cascade community. Both centers will be fully staffed and provide services including cardiology, HIV health care, mammography, rehabilitation, X-ray, lab, and a pharmacy.
Grady says the Cascade location will open by July, with the Lee and White center slated for later this year.
Following the aforementioned study, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners approved a partnership designating Morehouse School of Medicine as a health care provider for the county. The plan is to open a new clinic under Morehouse Healthcare in East Point that will address some of the healthcare needs.
“We knew … there were differences in outcomes in diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and other kinds of diseases we focused on,” Tyndall said. “We also recognized that those differences in outcomes were really based on race, but also were based on your ZIP code. And those two obviously intertwine.”
The location of the new facility — to be staffed by Morehouse School of Medicine — would be within 30 minutes of 80% of central and south Fulton residents. The hope is that the center would be open by this summer.