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Ga. hospital system closes clinic as patient volume drops

Wellstar is shifting patients from its East Point clinic to Southside Medical Center and providing financial assistance for that clinic’s expansion

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Marco Phinnizze says he feels fortunate since the quick action of the ambulance crew took him a hospital near him when he suffered a stroke. But that will be a different place for many who live in the East Point area since Wellstar AMC South closed its emergency room in April 2022. Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

By Ariel Hart, Donovan J. Thomas
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

EAST POINT, Ga. — Wellstar Health System confirmed Tuesday that it will shut down its clinic in East Point, closing its doors for good on Jan. 12 . The health workers who staffed it will be offered jobs at other Wellstar facilities outside the area, and they will suggest the patients go instead to the clinic next door.

Last year The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exclusively reported Wellstar’s plans to close the clinic, but Wellstar did not publicly confirm them at the time.

Wellstar has been working with a public clinic next door, Southside Medical Center, to shift patients there. As part of that work, Wellstar is helping that other clinic expand and paying them $5 million over time. Eventually, Wellstar’s financial support will cease with the hope that Southside can support itself., Southside Medical Center officials said last year,

The East Point clinic that is closing is all that remains of Wellstar’s former hospital there, Atlanta-Medical Center-South. Wellstar shut down AMC-South in 2022, leaving no emergency room in Fulton County south of I-20. That was months before Wellstar made national news shutting down the main AMC hospital in downtown Atlanta.

Both Wellstar and Southside Medical Center said the East Point deal would help patients who need ongoing non-emergency care.

In a joint statement, they said that Southside, a Federally Qualified Health Center, or FQHC, will give better care to the poor and uninsured because it can become a patient’s health care home. Patients can go there for vaccinations and regular visits to prevent problems, rather than just showing up when a problem arises.

FQHC’s get part of their money from federal grants. Unlike most for-profit urgent care clinics, FQHC’s often treat people who have no insurance.

Wellstar said patients at Southside can receive more services, such as primary care, pediatric care, dental care, OB/GYN services and immunizations, and mental health care services virtually.

However, FQHC’s are clinics, not specialty centers or surgery centers. A patient may learn what their problem is but might not be able to fix it there.

Wellstar pointed out that the majority of patients who went to the AMC-South hospital as well as those who went to its clinic needed primary care, not emergency care. The CEO of Southside said that’s exactly what Southside is for, and Wellstar’s $5 million is helping provide more of it.

“The Atlanta and East Point communities have a critical need for preventive and primary healthcare services, especially those focused on treating chronic illnesses,” Dr. David Williams, CEO of Southside, said in an opinion editorial submitted to the AJC. Especially for patients who lack the insurance they need, Williams said, Federally aided clinics like Southside “are uniquely designed to meet these needs,”

As Wellstar worked to shift patients to Southside, it has seen the Wellstar clinic’s patient volume decrease from 80 per day to about 28 per day, Wellstar said in its written statement. The Southside clinic will increase its hours to accommodate the added volume.

The clinics serve an area deeply in need of health care resources. Companies that run hospitals and clinics are attracted to areas with high-income workers with health insurance that pay larger amounts for health services. That’s not East Point.

A report produced by Morehouse and consultants Ernst & Young in partnership with Fulton County found that Southern Fulton has no specialists in cardiology, pulmonology or infectious diseases; no doctors that care for patients with heart disease, respiratory diseases and HIV and AIDS, all of which are conditions that heavily affect the people living in the community of 234,000 residents.

Fulton County commissioners have called for an investigation of AMC’s owner, Wellstar Health System, for “redlining” or closing hospitals in majority black and poor areas, have discussed the need to act quickly to address the lack of health care access in south Fulton.

An analysis by the AJC showed when AMC-South closed, the population that was removed from being 15 minutes away from an emergency room was overwhelmingly people with a lower-than-average income. The population no longer within 15 minutes of an emergency room, the AJC found, was 88.7% Black.

Kierra Stanford, a healthcare activist, is one of them. She lives near the border between College Park and East Point.

She’s not swayed by the argument that the Southside clinic was a good solution.

“I think that that is extremely unacceptable from Wellstar,” Stanford said. She wished there was some kind of communication with the community beyond the legal 30-day notice just now issued. She also wants to know what’s going to happen with the property.

Wellstar in a statement said that it was in a “thoughtful” process about what to do with the soon-to-be-empty AMC-South property, including discussions with Southside.

Asked if there was a specific timeline on when plans would be made for the future of the site, Wellstar did not provide one.

©2023 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Visit at ajc.com.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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