As Wellstar's safety net hospital closes its doors, Atlanta's remaining Level 1 trauma care provider rapidly expands capacity

With the official closure of Wellstar’s Atlanta Medical Center (AMC) on Tuesday, the city’s remaining major hospitals and emergency departments say they are under strain but are working to quickly expand physical capacity, triage capability and virtual care offerings.

“It’s not lost on us that some people may be concerned about how this may impact not only their health but the health of their loved ones,” the administration of Grady Health System said in an emailed statement. The public system's flagship hospital now stands as the city’s only Level 1 trauma center.

“We want the city of Atlanta to know—Grady isn’t going anywhere. Our medical team and staff will continue to show up every day, just like we always have.”

Word came in late August that Wellstar would be shuttering AMC due to the major financial losses the hospital had incurred.

The system reported an operating loss of about $114 million for AMC and Atlanta Medical Center South—a hospital turned emergency department closed earlier in the year—and $107 million within the last 12 months alone, during its most recent fiscal year. Wellstar reported an operating income of $106 million across all of its locations during the same period.

The center had operated for over a century as Georgia Baptist Hospital and was acquired by Wellstar in 2016. About two-thirds of the 4,281 emergency room patients AMC’s locations saw in 2019 were Black and just over half were Medicare and Medicaid recipients, according to Wellstar operating data cited by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The nonprofit system said it would be “implementing a comprehensive transition plan” as services were brought to an end and directing patients to its other primary care, urgent care and physician office locations. It’s also directing emergency patients and services to emergency departments and hospitals anywhere from one to seven miles away following the mid-October closure of AMC’s emergency department.

The decisions to close AMC and AMC South were widely panned by Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and other government officials.

The mayor and city council took actions prohibiting redevelopment applications for the hospital site to ensure “they can’t sell the hospital and knock it down and make condos or a fancy Starbucks or whatever” before a new operator can be found, the mayor reportedly said.

The closure leaves Grady Health System as the go-to emergency care provider for AMC’s former community. The system said it has already begun to see an influx of patients visiting its emergency department and an increase in trauma volumes since Wellstar began to wind down services.

“However, we have taken several steps to help absorb the increased volume,” Grady’s administration said. “We have hired former AMC trauma surgeons and primary care physicians to help meet the growing need at our trauma center and in our neighborhood health centers. Additional practitioners have been added to Grady’s Walk-In Center and our ER waiting room. We have added 41 new inpatient beds, and more are forthcoming.”

The public system’s expansion is being boosted by the state. Last month, Gov. Brian Kemp announced that $130 million of Georgia’s American Rescue Plan funds would support roughly 185 new hospital beds. The board of commissioners for DeKalb County has also slotted $20 million to support nursing services at Grady and emergency services at Emory Hillandale Hospital.

Emory Healthcare, a longtime clinical partner of Grady, said it has also seen longer wait times in emergency rooms “following the tapering and closure of services of Wellstar AMC and its emergency room.” The organization has released statements over the past month and a half committing to support Grady and, with the $12 million from DeKalb County, is working to relieve some of the burden from Grady’s beleaguered emergency department.

In the meantime, Grady said that it launched a “nurse advice line” and other services to help patients determine the appropriate level of care. The system also described a new 911 triage system that determines whether described symptoms would be better for a telehealth or at-home visit and said it will be adding on-demand video visits to its existing telehealth capabilities.

“Grady remains committed to protecting the health and well-being of the community we are privileged to serve,” administrators said. “We know people rely on us to provide the quality healthcare they deserve, and we intend to honor that.”