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SEA CHANGE: Grady Hospital chairman A.D. “Pete” Correll (from left), dialysis patient Baani, and state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, were firsthand witnesses to the safety-net hospital’s contentious transformation.
  • Dustin Chambers
  • SEA CHANGE: Grady Hospital chairman A.D. “Pete” Correll (from left), dialysis patient Baani, and state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, were firsthand witnesses to the safety-net hospital’s contentious transformation.

Seventeen of the city's preeminent movers and shakers, including Correll, Bell, H.J. Russell & Company CEO Michael B. Russell, Georgia State University President Carl Patton, and Atlanta Housing Authority President Renee Glover, joined the group. Correll and Russell were made co-chairmen.

The task force quickly concluded that Grady was being mismanaged by "unqualified" board members who "had lost track of the bright line between managing and governing," Correll says. Among the alleged offenders was state Sen. Charles Walker, D-Augusta. In 1994, he attempted to strong-arm Grady into exclusively hiring temp workers from his employment agency. As the House majority leader, he later used his clout to stop a committee from looking into Grady's financial operations. Walker was ultimately convicted of 127 counts of tax evasion, mail fraud, and conspiracy in 2005.

It was obvious that Grady lacked fiscal responsibility, even to its employees.

"When I first got there, Fulton and DeKalb used to have a pretty big subsidy for Emergency Medical Services that was just free money," says Mike Lunney, a former paramedic who worked at Grady from 2007 to 2012. "People worked lots of overtime. There were paramedics clearing six figures working 100 hours a week. [There was] no oversight."

Low morale also plagued the ranks. Chief Nursing Officer Rhonda Scott recalls a revolving door among senior leadership and a dearth of nurses committed to the hospital's mission. Dr. Andrew Agwunobi, Grady's CEO from 2003 to 2006, remembers a "very dire" mood among his physicians regarding the hospital's future. "People were concerned about whether or not Grady was going to be able to manage itself out of the situation it was in," he says.

Grady had few options remaining. The safety-net hospital was on life support, facing both an overwhelming financial burden and a treacherous decrease in its quality of care. Correll says the hospital's performance ranked so low — in the bottom quartile after inspectors reported broken equipment, sanitation issues, and poor patient recordkeeping — that it risked losing the accreditation needed to participate in Medicare and Medicaid. Moreover, the hospital faced an estimated $60 million budget gap and owed $71 million to Emory and Morehouse, whose medical schools provide the hospital with doctors.

"It was floundering," says State Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, who was a Fulton County commissioner at the time. "It was very unnerving to see an institution of that size and critical function teetering on the verge of shutdown."

In June 2007, the task force suggested that a nonprofit corporation take over operations. All other urban hospitals in Georgia had already transitioned to a nonprofit model — an approach that placed organizational control in the hands of leaders familiar with large corporate enterprises. Others offered alternative strategies. State Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, floated an option requiring the FDHA to outsource daily management. Those plans failed to gain momentum.

The task force's proposal became the front-runner, but it faced intense opposition. The Grady Coalition, a group of civil rights activists, doctors, and patient advocates, reconvened for the first time since it was formed in 1999 to fight for the community's interests. Its members believed privatizing Grady would eliminate public oversight, cut jobs, and decrease patient services.

Some observers viewed the business community's potential involvement as more of a private-sector power play than a philanthropic act. Behind every executive-level decision was the question of whether Grady would sacrifice its longstanding mission to serve the city's indigent population. As far as state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, is concerned, "They didn't save Grady, they took it over."

Over the years, the hospital had become increasingly vital to Atlanta's black population as both a health care provider and an employer. Certain skeptics believed that many of the task force's conservative white members didn't understand the African-American community's vital relationship with the public hospital.

"What these [business leaders] adhere to is: Never let a crisis go untaken advantage of," says Fort. "They made that point [that] Grady's going to close and all that. But the fact is, they took advantage of that hysteria and unleashed the dogs. They were enlisted in the fight against the community in a shameful way, as far as I'm concerned."

Civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, John Evans, and Joe Beasley, all Grady Coalition members, organized protests and sit-ins to ensure that Grady's new board strongly considered the black community's vested interest in the hospital's future. Protestors expressed outrage over the lack of public involvement in privatization discussions, some of which occurred behind closed doors.

"I was caught in a relatively violent protest of folks that were very upset with the privatization process," says Riley. "I was pressed up against the glass doors by the crowd of protesters as we watched Sen. Fort be handcuffed."

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