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Federal complaint challenges Wellstar's nonprofit status

One is a civil rights complaint and the other challenges the health system's nonprofit status.

ATLANTA — Georgia state lawmakers are filing two federal complaints against Wellstar Health System

One is a civil rights complaint and the other challenges the health system's nonprofit status. Local officials are alleging Wellstar is skirting tax laws by maintaining it as a nonprofit.

"What we're talking about is no more and no less than healthcare redlining on the part of Wellstar," Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robb Pitts said during Wednesday's news conference, announcing the federal complaints.

Pitts is part of the coalition of lawmakers that are backing the complaints that say the proof is in Wellstar's recent departures in key metro Atlanta communities. 

The health system recently closed down Atlanta Medical Center, leaving the metro area with Grady Memorial Hospital as the sole Level 1 trauma center. AMC closed on Nov. 1, 2022, leaving the burden of the highest level of trauma care to Grady for nearly three months until Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville received its upgraded status.

Before AMC's closure, Wellstar also shuttered its emergency room facility in East Point, leaving a lack of emergency room hospitals south of I-20 in Fulton County. 

"Complaints about violations of the Civil Rights Act are not uncommon," State Sen. Nan Orrock (D - Atlanta) said about the other federal complaint. "This is I think a very glaring one with plenty of evidence."

The complaints are being filed with the federal Department of Health and Human Services on the grounds that the hospital closings inordinately impacted communities of color. It also questions Wellstar's nonprofit status as it points out that the hospital system is seemingly considering a new facility in a wealthy and mostly white suburb of Augusta. 

When Wellstar closed its metro Atlanta facilities, it said it was because it was too costly to keep them afloat.

"You don't walk away then get yourself in the budget for a hospital in Columbia County and turn your backs on Atlanta healthcare," Orrock said.

Others sounded off that the healthcare system should have had conversations with Grady or at minimum with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens to work out a way to keep from closing -- the lack of conversations, officials allege, means it was a business move.

Lawmakers said now a business decision has left other healthcare providers struggling to adapt to AMC's closing. 

On Wednesday, the Georgia Coordinating Center showed Grady, Emory and Piedmont hospitals as being overcrowded and were diverting emergency traffic to other hospitals.

Officials said they have enough evidence for their tax complaint, which asks the IRS to investigate if Wellstar's recent closures in metro Atlanta violate its nonprofit status. Ultimately, lawmakers hope the complaints send a message that they intend to hold Wellstar accountable.

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