Atlanta Medical Center in Old Fourth Ward stands empty after it was closed last year by Wellstar Health System. (Dyana Bagby)

The Fulton County Commission voted March 15 to approve a resolution requesting the U.S. Department of Justice investigate Wellstar Health Care for “health care redlining” after closing two Atlanta hospitals used primarily by Black and lower-income residents.

Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said closing Atlanta Medical Center in Old Fourth Ward and Atlanta Medical Center South in East Point hurts majority-Black communities and leaves those living south of Interstate 20 without access to an emergency room and other medical services.

“Wellstar created a health care desert in central and south Fulton County,” Pitts said.

“It is a classic example of health care redlining,” he said, referencing discriminatory housing and real estate practices.

Two months after closing the two AMC hospitals, Wellstar announced it wanted to partner with Augusta University Hospital System, the state’s only public medical school. The potential partnership could include building a new hospital in Columbia County, which is 71.3% white.

Wellstar, based in Marietta, responded to the accusations of discrimination as “shameful and false.” The system said it was forced to close the AMC hospitals after not receiving financial help from local elected officials.

“These difficult circumstances and ongoing community discussions should not give license to some politicians to attack an entire healthcare system — home to 24,000 team members and caregivers — to score cheap political points,” Wellstar said in a written statement.

The Fulton County resolution comes days after state lawmakers and the NAACP filed two federal complaints (see at bottom of page) over Wellstar’s decision last year to close Atlanta Medical Center and Atlanta Medical Center South and other medical facilities. One complaint alleges Wellstar violated the Civil Rights Act. The other asks the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the nonprofit health care system’s tax-exempt status.

Pitts said Fulton’s complaint was being filed with the DOJ because the department “has more teeth” and “a serious, strong enforcement division.” He asked the resolution be approved unanimously. It passed 5-1.

Commissioner Bridget Thorne, who represents Johns Creek and parts of Roswell, Alpharetta and Sandy Springs, voted against the resolution. Before the vote, she defended Wellstar in a lengthy prepared statement. She said Wellstar invested $350 million in capital investments at AMC after purchasing the hospital six years ago, and sustained operating losses more than three times their annual investment and capital improvements compared to historical averages.

“WellStar is a safety-net provider in every market that they serve,” Thorne said. “They don’t just serve South Fulton County. They serve eight different counties. As a result they’ve provided more indigent charity and other unreimbursed health care than any other system in the state of Georgia.”

“WellStar purchased AMC in 2016. Did we think they were redlining then when they jumped in to try to help?” Thorne asked.

Thorne also said that AMC treated the same patients as “our good friend Grady down the road” but did it without the $50-$60 million that Fulton County gives the charity hospital. She said Wellstar sought help from local governments, including Fulton, but was turned away.

“By signing this resolution commissioners, what message are we sending?” Thorne asked. “What hospital would want to come in to Fulton County now? The basic purpose of this resolution is to hurt [Wellstar], to lash out, to pull their nonprofit status.”

“This resolution is not a solution,” she said. “And that’s what the poor people in South Fulton and Fulton County need.”

Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman, who represents Southwest Atlanta, did not hide her anger with Thorne’s comments.

“I will not sit here and listen to your white privilege,” Abdur-Rahman said. “Your white privilege does not cross over I-20 south. So I say to you, I am offended.”

“We have been healthcare redlined, and whether what the chairman has done, whether it helps us or not, it has to be said,” she said.

Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr., whose district includes South Fulton, said Thorne’s comments “sounded like a paid advertisement.”

“I guess your check is in the mail,” he said.

He also denied Wellstar’s claims that the healthcare system approached Fulton County asking for financial help due to ongoing losses of millions of dollars a year.

“They never approached us. They never talked to us. They never asked us for any money. That is an absolute falsehood,” Arrington said.

“There is no way in the world that if they had come to us and asked us for some support that we would not have given them that support in lieu of them closing one or both of those hospitals,” he said.

Arrington also told Thorne that she and her majority white North Fulton constituents have eight hospitals. With no hospitals south of I-20, Black residents will suffer the most.

Commissioner Dana Barrett, who represents Buckhead and portions of Sandy Springs and Midtown, said Thorne sounded like a lawyer defending Wellstar.

“You asked us what message are we sending?” Barrett said. “And I would ask you, what message are you sending when you said not one word about healthcare in Fulton County. You said not one word defending the citizens of Fulton County.”

Commissioner Natalie Hall, whose district includes the Old Fourth Ward and Downtown, said she had to learn through the grapevine that Wellstar was closing AMC.

“Wellstar has not been a good partner,” she said. “And they have not been honest with us.”

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has said he is working with regional medical facilities in a search to bring a new health care system to reopen Atlanta Medical Center. He and the City Council put a moratorium on the AMC’s campus to ensure Wellstar doesn’t sell or redevelop the property. The moratorium expires in one month.

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.