Wellstar Health System on Wednesday announced it will close the emergency department and hospital beds at its hospital in East Point in May. The facility will instead become a 24-hour clinic for urgent care and rehabilitative services.
The hospital, Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center South, currently has the only ER within Fulton County south of I-20.
Wellstar CEO Candice Saunders said the move was a result of lower than average levels of patient admissions at AMC South, as well as a staff shortage.
“As we look at our community needs, we are changing to a model of care that we think lines up more with what the care needs are,” Saunders said in an interview.
Patients who need ER care or admission to a hospital to stay in a bed after the shutdown can be transported to Wellstar AMC in Atlanta. Many were already going there, or to Grady or to Southern Regional Medical Center in Clayton County, Saunders said.
She said that visits to the AMC South ER averaged 140 a day, and only 7 of those resulted in admission to the hospital on average.
She acknowledged that patient loads vary widely during the pandemic, and that hospitals statewide have been overloaded and short of capacity during surges. But part of that is the nationwide staff shortage, she said.
“One of the biggest challenges for us during this last surge was, we had beds and we didn’t have staff,” she said. “This consolidation will help us staff the inpatient services at Atlanta Medical Center main, as well as our other sites.”
Wellstar is a nonprofit organization, but nonprofit hospital systems are driven by financial concerns just as for-profit ones are. In the hospital business geography is crucial: Being located in a wealthier area means that people who come in the door are more likely to have robust health insurance, and to be able to pay out-of-pocket costs.
The southern part of Fulton County has fewer hospitals than north Fulton. While southern Fulton is less densely populated than Fulton’s central and northern parts, the south is also less affluent on average.
According to a hospital list maintained by the state Department of Community Health, Fulton County is home to nearly a dozen hospitals. But only one with an ER is south of I-20, AMC South, which is closing.
In contrast, the heavily developed northern Perimeter junction of Ga. 400 and I-285 includes a handful of hospitals, and north of there are two more, Wellstar North Fulton in Roswell and Emory Johns Creek.
“I know they do have a large percentage of uninsured or underinsured patients that they serve at that facility,” said East Point Mayor Deana Ingraham.
“I’m sure just from the standpoint of operating the business, those types of factors are things that they had to consider.” She said she was working with Wellstar hoping that all employees, including lower level staff such as janitors, would be offered jobs and aid for transportation.
Informed by a reporter on Wednesday that the East Point services were closing, the mayor just south of there, City of South Fulton Mayor Khalid Kamau, exclaimed, “Noooo!” An acquaintance of his went there just this week following a car accident, he said. “That’s our city’s hospital.”