UPDATED: Emory Healthcare closes Wesley Woods psychiatric beds

To take on some of that load, Emory Healthcare announces $22 million expansion for psychiatric services at Emory Decatur Hospital.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS


Emory Healthcare’s Wesley Woods Hospital, long a mainstay of psychiatric care in DeKalb County, is shutting down inpatient beds for acute psychiatric cases and moving some of those beds to a revamped unit at Emory Decatur Hospital, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

The move comes amid a severe shortage of mental health resources in Georgia, and stunted efforts in the Legislature to force insurance companies to pay hospitals equitable rates for mental health care just as they do for physical health care. The group Mental Health America, a nonprofit mental health advocacy group, last year ranked Georgia 49th out of 50 states and Washington, D.C. in access to mental health care, ahead of only Alabama and Texas.

Emory’s Decatur facility is completing a $22 million expansion for psychiatric and behavioral health to help take on the load, but with a revamped focus. It will have some inpatient beds, but an additional focus on outpatient therapies.

A spokeswoman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in written statements that the expansion and renovation at Emory Decatur would “streamline treatment options and increase access to services for patients.”

Emory did not answer a reporter’s questions asking how many beds would be lost or gained overall in the shifts, or how many psychiatrist positions would be gained or lost. The website for Emory Wesley Woods said it had 44 beds for adult psychiatric care. Emory Decatur’s announcement said it will have 32 inpatient beds.

“Behavioral health services at Emory Decatur Hospital will be able to accommodate the volumes of behavioral health services previously provided at Emory University Hospital at Wesley Woods,” read statements provided by the Emory Healthcare spokeswoman, Janet Christenbury.

Emory Healthcare planned to announce the changes Thursday.

There is no public data on how many psychiatric beds there are in Georgia. But all acknowledge a shortage of both beds and mental health professionals in the state. As of the latest data available, for 2020, 90 of Georgia’s 159 counties had no psychiatrist, according to the Georgia Board of Health Care Workforce.

Emory Wesley Woods Hospital will still remain open for some services, including addiction treatment and addicts who also have psychiatric problems.

In an interview with the AJC, the parents of one patient expressed concern that their young adult daughter might now have to fight harder to get hospitalized when she needs it.

Their daughter has bipolar disorder and has long gone to Wesley Woods for hospitalization when she is in the part of her disease cycle where she is at severe risk of suicide. To protect her privacy, the AJC is not naming the patient.

This month, when she went to the ER to get admitted, her parents learned that her unit at Wesley Woods had closed and staff were trying to get her a bed at Emory Decatur. But there weren’t any available.

Waiting for a bed to free up, she “boarded” in an ER space for two days — an overflow process that takes up space from other incoming ER patients — and then a third day in a regular hospital room under watch, her parents said.

The patient then got a bed in the new Emory Decatur psychiatric unit. She described her stay there as unproblematic.

Not for her parents, though. When a staffer at the unit left a voicemail for them saying to call back for a non-urgent update on their daughter, her father, Ben Smith, tried the number they left three times, during business hours. No one ever answered, he said.

Eventually they got a call from a different number from their daughter, which left that phone number to reach her at, in a common room for patients. Smith called it and reached a person who gave her name as Vicky and said she was a nurse. She said their daughter was doing extremely well, which she could say with authority after 40 years’ experience.

At some point Smith said he realized that Vicky was a patient pretending to be a nurse.

Smith questioned whether reduced staffing might be to blame for lack of a staffer to route his call.

Smith is formerly a reporter for the AJC.

Their daughter will also have to find a new psychiatrist, after being treated for years by the one who finally diagnosed her after previous misdiagnoses. That psychiatrist would not comment to the AJC, but he told the family that the changes had caused an exodus of psychiatrists from the system and that he himself was moving to Florida. The AJC could not verify those statements and Emory did not provide details.

Emory Healthcare’s response focused instead on its offerings of an updated range of services to the patients formerly at Wesley Woods, with a goal of providing treatment that can safely lead patients to less restrictive options.

They include services that are gaining popularity such as ketamine infusions, an anesthetic that’s used in depression and pain management, as well as intensive outpatient care designed to help people transition from inpatient care.

Christenbury said ratios of staff to patients remain the same at Emory Decatur as they were at Wesley Woods

Roland Behm, an advocate for mental health patients and their families, agreed that in general, a focus solely on inpatient beds needs to change to a focus on much greater access to all ranges of mental health services. Behm said if people get regular care more often, maybe they won’t need to cycle in and out of crisis beds.

However, he said, there is already a large deficit of mental health care in Georgia and the inpatient beds are crucial.

“The demand isn’t going down,” Behm said. “The demand is there.”

The Georgia Legislature and Gov. Brian Kemp in 2022 made it law that insurance companies pay mental health and physical health care workers equally. But the law is not being enforced, Behm said.

A recent report from the nonprofit research organization RTI International found that in Georgia insurance companies are allowed to reimburse physician’s assistants in regular medical care 35% more than psychiatrists, who are medical doctors. And, according to RTI International, the companies’ networks of mental health providers are so poor that Georgia patients are 103 times more likely to be forced to go out of network for mental health care, than they are for physical health care.

Metro Atlanta’s shortage of psychiatric services was made worse when Wellstar Health System shut down Atlanta Medical Center in 2022, one of the few hospitals with inpatient psychiatric beds.

On Wednesday night, a check of hospital capacity showed that every general hospital in DeKalb County was warning ambulances that they were too full to take psychiatric patients.

  • 988 is a national three-digit hotline that connects people with a crisis responder who can suggest suicide prevention and mental health crisis resources.
  • 988 callers can engage with counselors by voice call, text or chat on their website. All are answered by the Georgia Crisis and Access Line (GCAL), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
  • Nationally, there is now an addition of Spanish text and chat services for 988. They’ve also added services geared toward LGBTQ youth and young adults.
  • A call to the hotline does not mean police or an ambulance will be sent to your home.