Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, Wednesday announced that she along with other politicians and the NAACP have filed two federal complaints over Wellstar’s 2022 decision to close two Atlanta-area hospitals serving Black patients. (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – The NAACP – along with state legislators and other politicians – has filed two federal complaints over Wellstar Health System’s decision last year to close Atlanta hospitals in majority-Black areas.

Wellstar’s decision to close two Atlanta-area hospitals, Atlanta Medical Center and Atlanta Medical Center-South, has damaged the health-care rights of Black patients, the complaints allege, and left patients south of Interstate 20 without a nearby emergency room and other medical services. 

The first complaint asks the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to investigate Wellstar’s tax-exempt status. The second alleges the closures violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act and is being filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights. 

“They imposed great harm and that harm continues today,” Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said Wednesday. The two hospitals in majority-Black areas closed, while Wellstar hospitals in majority-white areas have remained open, Orrock said. Along with Orrock and the NAACP, Rep. Kim Schofield, D-Atlanta, has signed on to the complaints. 

Soon after Wellstar closed the hospitals, the organization announced that it would seek to form a partnership with Augusta University Hospital System. The potential partnership with the state’s sole public medical school could also include building a new hospital in Columbia County, which is 71.3% white, according to the complaint.

“As it abandons a minority community, leaving it in far worse straits regarding health care and access to care, there is some irony in Wellstar’s CEO’s statement about its current plans [that] ‘We would improve the health of the community … and expand access to quality care for all Georgians,’” the complaints note.  

But Wellstar denied the validity of the complaints in a statement issued last night. 

“The suggestion that Wellstar Health System in any way discriminated against patients and communities is outrageous and false,” the statement said. “We are the largest provider of charity care in the state of Georgia.” 

“We are focused and committed to continue serving diverse communities throughout the region and providing them the specialized programs and resources they need,” the statement continued.

The federal government has an interest in Wellstar’s decision to close the two facilities because the system earns a significant amount of revenue from the federally funded Medicaid and Medicare programs. 

Wellstar should have developed a plan to meet community needs instead of closing the Atlanta hospitals, the complaint alleges. The IRS requires tax-exempt hospitals to assess community needs every three years and implement a strategy to address those needs. 

“Wellstar’s action deprives Black and other minority patients of crucial services,” the second complaint contends. “Wellstar should be held to account and required to repair the damage it has caused.

“We ask the Office for Civil Rights to investigate Wellstar’s actions, which have the effect of causing disparate harm to people of color.”

The complaints note that the Wellstar system had net assets of $2.67 billion in fiscal 2021. 

The closure of the two Atlanta facilities also led the medical practices associated with them to either move to less-diverse areas or close, forcing patients to travel long distances to get outpatient care, the complaints state.  

“Many patients who want to continue to see their own doctors now must travel across the large, traffic-congested metro area to reach them,” the complaints note, giving the example of a patient with diabetes formerly treated at Wellstar’s downtown Atlanta facility who now must take two buses and travel 20 miles to reach Austell, a suburb of Atlanta, for treatment.  

Tax-exempt hospitals are increasingly in the news for their alleged failures to meet community needs. 

Recently, a Pennsylvania court denied property tax exemptions to four hospitals in the Tower Hospital system outside of Philadelphia after the local school district claimed the hospitals acted more like for-profit than non-profit entities. The decision was based in large part on what the court saw as excessive CEO pay.  

Wellstar’s CEO, Candice Saunders, earned $2.5 million in 2020, according to the hospital system’s IRS filings posted on its website. The hospital system received a “B” grade in the Lown Institute’s social responsibility index, which measures hospital outcomes, value and equity.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.