This week, Senator Reverend Warnock urged Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr to ensure Wellstar Health System commits to long-standing investments in Augusta University Health System (AUHS) as the organizations look to merge
ICYMI from the AJC: “[Senator Warnock] called for the deal to include several safeguards, including a commitment from Wellstar to maintain current services at the main Augusta hospital for at least 20 years. Warnock also said he wants Wellstar to let doctors, nurses and other staff remain in the Augusta area if they desire and not relocate them to other sites, as happened with Atlanta.”
Washington, D.C. — This week, U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) urged Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr to ensure Wellstar Health System commits to long-standing investments in Augusta University Health System (AUHS). The Senator sent the letter as a part of the public comment period regarding the proposed merger between Wellstar and AUHS. The Senator offered his conditional support for the merger, however he recommended Carr require that any merger agreement contain the following commitments from Wellstar:
- Do not move or shut down services currently offered at the Medical Center. AUHS currently offers 37 lines of service, contributing to the elite reputation of the care delivered at that hospital. AUHS has received top hospital recognition for heart attack, kidney failure, heart failure, and stroke care. Cutting any of these service lines would be disruptive and unacceptable.” Any agreement should require Wellstar to commit to not closing any existing service lines for at least twenty years after the merger is finalized. Additionally, Wellstar should not to move any lines of service outside of Richmond County for the same period, so that Augusta residents will continue to have access to care at the main Medical Center, where they have for decades.
- Allow AUHS providers to remain in Augusta. Augusta University Health System has been a flagship hospital, offering the highest quality of care for decades. Any agreement should require Wellstar to commit to allowing current providers (doctors, nurses, physician assistants, etc.) the freedom to stay in the Augusta area, if preferred, instead of relocating qualified providers from Augusta to serve its existing hospitals in the suburbs of Atlanta or other future locations, including Columbia County. [I/we] understand the value of a cross-collaborative health care system, but Wellstar must also maintain the current standard of care in Augusta. That is why [I/we] also encourage any agreement include the removal of the threat of non-competes agreements should Wellstar close any hospital within AUHS.
- Provide robust community benefits that benefit preventive health. Non-profit hospitals such as Wellstar are required to provide community benefits to maintain their tax-exempt status. [I/we] applaud Wellstar’s past efforts in providing charity care to uninsured and underinsured patients. However, communities also benefit from contributions that support preventive health and general community wellness. [I/we] recommend any agreement to encourage Wellstar to invest in Augusta, and other locations across the state, through various benefit categories in addition to charity care. Specifically, [I/we] recommend any agreement to require Wellstar to commit to community benefit spending equal to its current median percent spent across its other facilities. Additionally, a meaningful share of the spending should be directed to preventive categories for marginalized residents of Wellstar’s service area.
- Agree to price constraints for hospital services. Research shows that hospital mergers within state, but not within the same geographic market, often result in price increases post-merge. Past merging hospitals have agreed to freeze commercial unit price payments for a certain number of years post-merge. [I/we] recommend any agreement require Wellstar to commit to freezing the prices of services at AUHS for at least ten years after the merger is finalized. This will ensure that Augusta patients can continue to access affordable care, and the cost of health care in Georgia will not increase dramatically.
- Establish MCG program to benefit primary care across the state, including in Atlanta. Georgia is experiencing crisis levels of health care workforce shortages, needing an additional 700 primary care providers to eliminate the current shortage. The proposed merger gives Wellstar access to the promising future providers studying at MCG. [I/we] recommend any agreement require Wellstar to tap into this valuable resource and train the next generation of primary care doctors. It should be left to Wellstar’s discretion what that program entails, but [I/we] request that any agreement last a minimum of ten years and partially serve underserved areas of the state, including where former AMC patients are still reeling from the closure of that hospital.
- Commit to providing relief for patients with medical debt. With new ownership of AUHS, patients may be confused about what that means for their pocketbook and specifically what that means for any existing or future medical debt. [I/we] recommend any agreement require Wellstar to commit, for at least ten years, to pause sending medical debt (for existing debt before the merger and post-merger debt) to debt collectors and credit reporting agencies and instead work in good faith to ensure the patient continues to have access to care.
In August 2022, Wellstar Health System announced it was shuttering its Atlanta Medical Center (AMC) location, shuttering one of only two Level 1 trauma centers in the city. Following this abrupt announcement, Senator Reverend Warnock joined Georgia delegation members in demanding answers on the closure and urging them to reverse course. Additionally, the Senator pressured Wellstar CEO to release doctors from their non-compete clauses so these medical professionals could continue to practice in Atlanta. In November, the Senator’s staff convened a community roundtable with stakeholders to discuss the future needs of the Atlanta community in the aftermath of AMC’s sudden closing. In April, Senator Warnock pressured Senate leadership to fully fund grants that support trauma centers in 2024’s government spending bill. The Senator’s effort fulfills a direct request that emerged from November’s health care community stakeholder roundtable.
See more coverage of Senator Reverend Warnock’s work to secure commitments from Wellstar.
June 27, 2023
- In the battle of public opinion, the deal won tentative support from Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock Tuesday.
- Warnock offered his “conditional support” for the proposed deal in a letter sent to Carr, and shared with the AJC.
- Warnock wrote that the COVID-19 pandemic and “the challenges of being a publicly funded hospital” put the Augusta system in a “fragile position.” But he expressed concern about Wellstar’s sudden closure of the Atlanta Medical Center last year.
- “Wellstar’s actions with respect to AMC raise questions about the reliability of Wellstar’s continued work with AUHS,” Warnock wrote.
- He called for the deal to include several safeguards, including a commitment from Wellstar to maintain current services at the main Augusta hospital for at least 20 years.
- Warnock also said he wants Wellstar to let doctors, nurses and other staff remain in the Augusta area if they desire and not relocate them to other sites, as happened with Atlanta.