Georgia lawmakers, NAACP ask HHS, IRS to investigate Wellstar's Atlanta hospital closure

Georgia state legislators and civil rights organization NAACP have filed two federal complaints against the nonprofit Wellstar Health System over the contentious closing of a financially failing Atlanta hospital, per the AP and other news outlets.

Shuttering the facility, which served many low-income and Black residents, could potentially meet the criteria for a violation of the Civil Rights Act, according to one complaint filed with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cited in the reports.

“It’s disgusting, disrespectful, and I’m going to send a message with all my colleagues that it will not be tolerated,” state Rep. Kim Schofield said at a news conference held Wednesday at the Georgia Capitol.

Government leaders including Robb Pitts, county commission chair of Georgia’s Fulton County, pointed out that Wellstar chose not to shutter other facilities in the state that primarily serve more affluent, and white, communities.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that what we’re talking about is no more and no less than healthcare redlining,” he said in reference to discriminatory real estate practices.

The second filing, submitted to the IRS, contends that WellStar’s decision to close the hospital and other facilities without properly implementing a strategy to address community health needs could place its status as a tax-exempt organization at risk, per the reports.

“We feel that there are grave possibilities that WellStar [Health System] has failed to comply with the requirements to maintain their 501c3 status,” Democratic Georgia state Sen. Nan Orrock said during the news conference.

In a written statement provided by Wellstar, the system claims it is the largest provider of charity care in Georgia and a top 10 charity care provider nationwide.

“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,” system leadership said.

The Marietta, Georgia-based system closed its 460-bed Atlanta Medical Center on Nov. 1, months after the closure of another department in the city. Wellstar’s announcement of the closure cited more than $350 million it had put into the hospital since its acquisition in 2016, $107 million of which had come during the past 12 months alone.

The closure left Atlanta with just one major hospital and Level I trauma center, the publicly owned Grady Health System. Local and state government leaders quickly authorized hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the facility’s capacity as well as those of other nearby nursing and emergency services.

During those months, officials said Wellstar didn’t give them enough warning of the closure to prevent potential delays in care for Atlanta residents.

In its statement, Wellstar said it has been “open, honest and transparent about the challenges we faced,” and, in February 2020, the health system announced it was searching for a partner or buyer to keep the hospital open.

“We connected with healthcare organizations locally, regionally and across the country,” Wellstar said. “Potential partners expressed interest, but ultimately none were interested. None of these facts were presented or discussed in [Wednesday’s] press conference.”