Closing of Atlanta Medical Center highlights state’s larger problems
By Tom Baxter
Draw a circle three or four miles in diameter with the WellStar Atlanta Medical Center at the center and you will have encompassed an enormous amount of territory, demographically, historically, culturally and politically. Not to mention a lot of Georgians in need of medical care.
Losing one of the city’s two level-one trauma centers is going to change the pattern of sirens you hear in the night in Atlanta, as emergencies that would have gone to AMC maneuver toward Grady Memorial Hospital instead. It’s going to make life harder for those who live nearby and depended on it. But WellStar’s decision to close the facility which served a significant share of the city’s poor is a sign of more far-reaching problems.
The closing of AMC will leave the entire state with four level one trauma centers: Grady, and facilities in Augusta, Macon and Savannah. Georgia’s network for the treatment of high-level emergencies will grow thinner. That’s a characteristic of healthcare in Georgia, generally.
On his Trouble in God’s Country blog, Charles Hayslett has become the grim chronicler of an alarming trend. Georgia has 159 counties. In 2010, 20 of those counties registered more deaths than births. By the time the pandemic started, that number had quadrupled and begun to stabilize. Then, “due largely to a rising death toll that owed primarily to a combination of Covid-19 fatalities and lethal drug overdoses,” the number of counties where deaths are outracing births soared again, to 123 counties in 2021.
In short, from the heart of Atlanta to the most depopulated stretches of rural Georgia, the state’s healthcare system is stressed to the point of breaking. There’s little point in pretending it’s not.
Stacey Abrams held a press conference in front of AMC after its demise was announced, laying the blame for its closure squarely on Gov. Brian Kemp for refusing to accept the federal Medicaid expansion. Kemp’s answer, as it has been before in this campaign, was in dollars.
The governor announced the state will allocate $180 million of the money available to it from the American Rescue Plan Act — that is to say, federal money — to increase Grady’s capacity by nearly 200 beds.
With AMC gone, Grady is going to need more beds, for sure. That won’t in any way replace what Atlanta has lost. Getting in and out of Grady is going to be more complicated than ever. Local Democratic leaders got on board with Kemp, praising him for arranging the money, but it sure didn’t sound like a band that had practiced together much.
Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts has suggested that a facility in the range of $500 million might be built to replace AMC, with no details about where that money might come from. That raises the question, why not just buy the AMC property? The infrastructure’s already there, though there are reports it’s not in such great shape. It’s in a perfect location, close to the major traffic arteries but outside the knots of downtown traffic.
The answer could be that this property has grown a little too prime. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens after AMC closes. It’s a massive piece of property overlooking the city in a fast-gentrifying area, tailor-made for some kind of live-shop-eat-work megadevelopment.
The problem is that in addition to living, shopping, eating and working, people also get sick, break bones, become delusional and collapse without reason. Atlanta has plenty of hospitals for patients who come with insurance cards and checkbooks, and some of these are expanding into impressive edifices. That shouldn’t obscure the reality that for many, finding adequate healthcare is a worsening problem.