Georgia Health News

ELLIJAY — North Georgia Medical Center in Ellijay has closed and will be replaced by an emergency department under an agreement that its owner recently signed with Piedmont Mountainside Hospital in nearby Jasper.

Piedmont will lease the ER as well as a nearby medical official building and facilities that have physician offices and other services.

The owner of the hospital, Atlanta-based SunLink Health System, recently gave 30 days’ notice that it’s closing North Georgia Medical Center, and the hospital reported on its website that it closed Monday. A SunLink subsidiary will continue operating the 100-bed nursing home there.

Piedmont Healthcare told GHN that it hopes to reopen the now-closed North Georgia ER by Nov. 1.

The hospital closing follows the shutdown of four other rural hospitals in Georgia since the beginning of 2013. The rural health crisis in the state has fueled legislation and an initiative by Gov. Nathan Deal to shore up the finances of such hospitals.

Another rural facility, Hutcheson Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe, closed in December, but a new organization, ApolloMD, has reopened the ER and other parts of the hospital, which has been renamed Cornerstone Medical Center.

“Our hospital in Jasper, Piedmont Mountainside, already serves a fairly large number of patients from Gilmer County and Ellijay,” said Matt Gove, chief consumer officer for Piedmont Healthcare. “We’re excited to move some of that care into the community, particularly since the ER has been closed for three months.”

SunLink’s CEO, Robert Thornton, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Thornton told GHN in January that North Georgia Medical Center has been losing money, and that many people needing inpatient care are already going to Piedmont Mountainside, about 20 miles away.

The Atlanta-based system, meanwhile, is locked in a contract dispute with giant health insurer UnitedHealthcare. That contract expires at the end of the month, and could affect tens of thousands of Piedmont patients who are members of United.

If the contract lapses without a new deal in place, these patients would face higher out-of-pocket costs if they sought care at Piedmont facilities or with their doctors. North Georgia Medical Center.

The Ellijay closure reflects the financial crisis facing rural Georgia hospitals, said Jimmy Lewis, CEO of HomeTown Health, an association of rural hospitals in the state.

Rural hospitals are dealing with high levels of uncompensated care, he said Wednesday. “Even people who appear to be insured are underinsured because of high deductibles.”

These facilities also deal with a heavy administrative burden from dealing with reimbursement complexity, Lewis added.

“Because of the tremendous cash crunches,” Lewis said, “there is the clear possibility that other hospitals can close this calendar year.”

Georgia Health News, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, tracks state medical issues on its website