Lawmakers seek federal investigations into Wellstar Atlanta hospital closures

A photograph of the now defunct Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center in Atlanta. The Wellstar system announced on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, that it would take over the Augusta University Health System after closing the money losing Atlanta hospital in November, prompting intense criticism. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

This story was updated March 9 at 10:27 a.m.

A coalition of state lawmakers and other metro-area officials is asking the federal government to investigate Wellstar Health System’s recent closures of Atlanta Medical Center in the Old Fourth Ward and its East Point Atlanta Medical Center South hospital.

Wellstar shut down the two hospitals last year, citing financial operating losses of more than $100 million in 2022.

Both were located in majority Black communities.

Now, the group led by Democratic Atlanta state Sen. Nan Orrock, Democratic Atlanta State Rep. Kim Schofield and Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts, has filed two federal complaints — one with the United States Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights, and the other with the Internal Revenue Service.

And they’re seeking a response from Wellstar, said Orrock.

“Wellstar needs to come to the table with the patient community, with the doctors, the other healthcare providers and the public officials and be prepared to discuss and tangibly contribute to repairing the damage that their action has caused,” she said.

Wellstar Health System denied the allegations. The company’s statement reads:

“While we have not seen the complaint, the suggestion that Wellstar Health System in any way discriminated against patients and communities is outrageous and false. In fact, we are the largest provider of charity care in the state of Georgia and among the top 10 providers nationwide, bringing expert, compassionate health services to those who need us most. Since February 2020, when Wellstar publicly announced a formal search for a partner or buyer to find a sustainable path forward, we have been open, honest and transparent about the challenges we faced. They were multi-faceted and included the age of AMC’s buildings, the fact that utilization was less than half of the bed capacity and a lack of public and private support. We connected with healthcare organizations locally, regionally and across the country. Potential partners expressed interest, but ultimately none were interested. None of these facts were presented or discussed in today’s press conference.”

The complaint to the Office for Civil Rights alleges the hospital closures have disproportionately affected Black residents and other people of color, in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 

The IRS complaint asks the agency to investigate whether Wellstar still qualifies for its nonprofit tax-exempt status, which requires hospitals to meet a number of obligations, including conducting an assessment of community health needs and implementing a plan to meet the needs identified by the assessment. 

Officials accuse Wellstar of failing to meet this obligation when it closed the two hospitals after completing an assessment. 

The Atlanta NAACP is also participating in the complaints. 

Atlanta Medical Center’s closure left Grady Memorial Hospital as the only remaining Level 1 trauma center in the city. 

East Point’s AMC South was the only full-service emergency department in Fulton County South of I-20.

“Across the community, I have heard from residents who are angry and frustrated,” Pitts said. “Wellstar’s actions demonstrate a pattern of continuing services in wealthy, predominantly white communities and abandoning communities of color. They must be held accountable.”

Wellstar operates nine hospitals in the Atlanta metro area.