NAACP files federal complaints following Wellstar's closure of Atlanta hospitals

The civil rights organization NAACP, along with Georgia Democrats and other lawmakers, has filed two federal complaints against Marietta, Ga.-based Wellstar Health System following its closure of two Atlanta hospitals in primarily Black areas. 

In May 2022, Atlanta Medical Center South in East Point, Ga., closed its emergency department and ended inpatient services. The hospital began diverting traffic to Atlanta Medical Center, its 460-bed sister facility, which shuttered in November 2022 despite backlash from community members, government officials and nearby healthcare organizations. 

The first complaint, filed with the IRS, asks for an investigation of Wellstar's tax-exempt status. The second, filed with HHS' civil rights office, alleges the hospital closures violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 

The two hospitals that closed saw primarily Black patients, while hospitals in wealthier white areas have remained open. The health system has pursued more hospitals in white areas since closing the Atlanta hospitals — including a partnership with Augusta University Hospital System, which could include a hospital in a 71.3 percent white county — The Augusta Chronicle reported March 8. 

Wellstar has pushed back against allegations of intentional racism surrounding the hospitals' closures since they arose. The day after Atlanta Medical Center shuttered, Wellstar CEO Candice Saunders said its closure was not abrupt. She said the health system held an exhaustive search for partners, but none was willing to move forward after learning more about the hospital's finances. 

Wellstar's actions are of interest to the federal government since the nonprofit system, particularly its safety net hospitals, receive substantial Medicare and Medicaid payments. 

"What we're talking about is no more and no less than healthcare redlining on the part of Wellstar," said Robb Pitts, chair of the Fulton County (Ga.) Commission, told The Washington Post. "It means that they've chosen where they will do business and not to do business based on the color of skin and the size of the bank accounts in the ZIP Codes where they're located."

Wellstar told Becker's it has not seen the complaint but said suggesting the health system discriminated against patients is "outrageous and false." The health system is the largest provider of charity care in Georgia and is in the top 10 nationwide, it said in a prepared statement. 

"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," Wellstar's statement read. "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."

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