Wellstar looks to add hospitals 8 weeks after closing Atlanta Medical Center

Marietta, Ga.-based Wellstar Health System closed its 460-bed Atlanta Medical Center Nov. 1, a move deemed abrupt by many community stakeholders. On Dec. 27, the health system announced plans to partner with a health system 150 miles away to "expand access to quality care for all Georgians."

Wellstar had operated Atlanta Medical Center since 2016 before its Nov. 1 closure. When Wellstar announced the closure plan Aug. 31, the system said it invested more than $350 million in capital improvements and to support sustained operating losses at the hospital, including a loss of $107 million in the last year. It pointed to decreasing revenue and increasing costs for staff and supplies, worsened by inflation. 

The day after AMC closed, Wellstar's CEO and board chair took out an op-ed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to note that they had completed an "exhaustive" search for partners that found no takers. 

"We understand and share the community's disappointment that the hospital has closed as of November 1," Candice Saunders, president and CEO, and O. Scott Swayze, MD, chair of the board, wrote in their shared op-ed. "While the decision may have felt abrupt, it came after an exhaustive search where a national consulting firm identified a number of potential partners. However, after learning more about AMC's infrastructure and finances, none were willing to move forward. Discussions with state, local and community officials also offered no alternate paths forward."

The loss of AMC means Atlanta and its half-million residents are down to a single level 1 trauma center, the city's public Grady Health System. The state extended a $130 million cash infusion to the safety-net to fund the addition of 200 beds to 953-bed Grady. The hospital has seen its trauma volume increase from 25 percent to 30 percent. 

"We were already running close to capacity or at capacity prior to AMC closing. We're now at capacity daily," Robert Jansen, MD, chief medical officer and chief of staff at Grady, told Becker's

Eight weeks after AMC closed, Wellstar and Augusta (Ga.) University Health announced Dec. 27 they had signed a letter of intent to "form an innovative new partnership." Headquartered 150 miles outside of Atlanta, AU Health includes 478-bed Augusta University Medical Center; 154-bed Children's Hospital of Georgia; more than 80 outpatient practice sites; and a critical care center that provides adult level 1 and pediatric level 2 trauma care. 

The health systems said the partnership was years in the making, with discussions dating back to 2019 about closer alignment. The release did not contain information about governance, finances or leadership, and said "there are aspects of the proposed partnership yet to be determined." The systems suggest the partnership "would likely result in significant investments to improve existing healthcare facilities and to expand access to care across the state," including an expanded healthcare professional pipeline through combined education and research programs and a new hospital in Augusta's Columbia County. 

Money Magazine recognized Columbia County in 2020 for containing top places to live, recognizing one city — Evans — as No. 1, noting that one in every 90 residents in the Augusta area is a physician. 

"Of all the U.S. towns and cities we looked at this year, Evans had the lowest cost of living of any place with similarly high income levels," Money wrote. "Those generous salaries are due in part to proximity to Augusta — a city locals often refer interchangeably with Evans — which is brimming with good jobs." 

In 2019, 22 percent of AU Health patients had commercial insurance coverage compared to only 16 percent of AMC patients, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Dec. 28. Nearly 70 percent of AMC's admitted patients were Black and 23 percent white; at Augusta University Medical Center, just under half are white and just under half are Black, based on 2019 documents reviewed by the newspaper.

The imprecise details of a potential Wellstar-AU Health partnership eight weeks after AMC's closure raises questions not only about the deal itself, but the motivation behind hospital ownership and operations in general, one former Wellstar leader told AJC. 

"I thought their prime goal was the healthcare of metro Atlanta," Mark Waterman, MD, former chief of medical staff at AMC, said. "So it's concerning."

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