Atlanta Mayor: Wellstar had AMC property valued before closure announcement

Ariel Hart’s reporting on gaps in medical services in Georgia was undertaken as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism 2022 National Fellowship.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens says Wellstar Health System received purchase offers for its Atlanta Medical Center property, and had it valued prior to publicly announcing the hospital’s closure.

In a statement Monday night, Wellstar officials said it performed only “informal assessments of the property’s value,” and that it has not commissioned a formal appraisal.

Speaking to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview on the subject Monday, Dickens did not suggest that Wellstar struck a deal to sell the property. But he and Chief Operating Officer Lisa Gordon said Wellstar wasn’t forthcoming when city officials initially asked for more information about the closure plans.

That lack of clarity surrounding Wellstar’s intentions led Dickens to impose a temporary ban on permitting or zoning changes to the property.

“We were trying to understand...what is the overall goal of this?” Dickens said. “And then later, you find out: `Oh, yeah, we got offers all the time. And...we did an appraisal.’”

In its statement, Wellstar did not specify when it performed the assessments, or say whether anyone else had commissioned an appraisal as part of previous talks.

Wellstar said the AMC property was not under contract for sale. It also said it’s not currently engaged in conversations with buyers or developers regarding the future of AMC’s buildings and campus. It has emphasized that it closed AMC because of its poor financial performance, not because of the land.

“We are in the very early stages of determining what is next for the land and have retained a third-party firm to intake all inquiries about the property,” the statement said. “We anticipate a lengthy process to evaluate the future of the AMC property and will keep our community and stakeholders informed.

“At this time, our priority is to secure the area and maintain the exterior and all major support systems.”

Dickens says the city wants to prioritize the continued use of the site — in whole or in part — for health care services.

The AMC was one of Atlanta’s largest providers of care to the poor, so residents were shocked on Aug. 31 when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the news about its closure. Atlanta enacted a redevelopment ban at the 25-acre site that will expire in April.

On Monday, Dickens said he’s willing to work with City Council to keep the moratorium in place as long as needed.

“They had not fully articulated that they were looking for it to remain a hospital,” he said. “That made me fearful that a sale could go to an unintended land use versus what we want the land use to be for.”

Atlanta has launched as part of a public engagement campaign to direct residents to other medical providers in the region. Counties are responsible for health care services, but Dickens said his administration is acting as shepherds and presenting the urgency of the issue to public leaders.

Dickens said the city convened with Gov. Brian Kemp, which resulted in Kemp’s plan to allocate $130 million to the Grady Health System for 185 more beds. Dickens also said Fulton County is pouring $11 million into Grady after Atlanta urged the county to chip in.

AMC’s downtown location, formerly known as Georgia Baptist Hospital, is the second Wellstar has closed this year.

Atlanta Medical Center South in East Point was reduced to an out-patient clinic earlier this year, and the AJC recently reported that Wellstar plans to fully shut it down within the coming months. Wellstar will help fund increased space in a federally funded clinic next door.

DeKalb County is investing $20 million into Grady and Emory Hillandale hospitals to prepare for the patient influx. Meanwhile, Dickens is enlisting Grady, Emory, Piedmont, and the Morehouse.

School of Medicine among the providers frequently meeting with the city to discuss what’s next. Dickens said he hopes the city can establish a new hospital system to address the gap created by AMC’s closure.

“We have had experiences where people have gone to either AMC south or AMC north out of habit, thinking that they could get medical care and they were met with a stark reality that that’s not the case,” Dickens said. “It’s caused confusion.”

[This article was originally published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.]

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