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Rise of urban hospital closures causing access problems for those in need

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Posted at 9:00 AM, Jan 17, 2023

There’s no denying the history one mile east of downtown Atlanta. It’s the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the home of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Within a mile’s walk, there are testaments to Black persistence.

Many in the community feel they have a new battle on their hand with the closure of Atlantic Medical Center, previously knowns as Georgia Baptist Hospital.

“People have been here for generations,” said Louis Negron. “With it now being gone, there is going to be a blight in the community of health care and access.”

Janani Thapa teaches and studies rural-urban disparities at the University of Georgia. For a decade, the narrative around hospitals shutting down has focused on medical facilities closing in rural areas. However, inner cities are not immune— with closures in Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

“We are a state where we need to do a lot of work in making sure everyone has equal access to health care,” Thapa said.

The nonprofit overseeing Atlanta Medical Center announced plans last year to cease operations. Wellstar pledged to “continue its commitment to the health of the more than 1.6 million Georgians across our diverse communities.” But the communities it vacated, in Atlanta and East Point, are largely low-income and largely Black.

When rural hospitals close, they often leave residents dozens of miles from the next available option. In cities, there’s at least the illusion of access. Grady Hospital is a mile away.

“This was a walkable hospital. So many people were walking during the day, during the evening. If there was an emergency, they could be here very quickly. Even though we see Grady is actually across the highway in a corner, it's a much more difficult trek to get there than this one here,” Negron said.

Grady Hospital is now Atlanta’s only level 1 trauma center. It declared in November that it isn't going anywhere, but acknowledged it's seeing an influx in patients.

The hospital and the state of Georgia have provided additional resources. However, when it comes to access to health care, it’s another problem that affects two communities that rarely communicate, those miles away from the city and those one mile away from downtown.

“I think it’s a loss for the community. I think it’s a lost opportunity,” Negron said.