ATLANTA - Local activists Thursday urged the public authority that runs Grady Memorial Hospital to think twice before giving way to a private corporation without guarantees that it will continue serving the poor.
"The die is already cast," Leonard Tate of the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda said during a public hearing at an auditorium across the street from Georgia's largest public hospital. "Services are going to get cut."
But Dr. Christopher Edwards, vice chairman of the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority, vowed that turning over day-to-day operation of financially struggling Grady to a nonprofit board - a step the authority already has given tentative approval - would not mean turning away poor or uninsured patients.
"Changing the historic mission of the hospital is a deal breaker," he said. "That's not an option."
The authority voted unanimously last month to revamp the hospital's governing structure, based on a recommendation by a Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce task force.
In a report issued last June, the panel suggested that converting Grady to a nonprofit would make banks and private foundations more willing to help bail out a hospital that has been bleeding red ink.
Gov. Sonny Perdue and Republican legislative leaders endorsed the chamber's findings and said the state, too, would do more to help Grady, subject to approval of the restructuring.
With the most nonpaying patients in Georgia, Grady lost money in 10 of the last 11 years, including a projected shortfall of $55 million this year.
The chamber report warned that unless the hospital received an infusion of cash, it could go out of business, a catastrophe that would flood other hospitals across the metro region with poor or uninsured patients.
But critics of restructuring have questioned the need for the authority to put control of Grady into private hands.
They have warned that a nonprofit board, in a rush to improve the hospital's bottom line, would reduce services that are going primarily to poor or uninsured patients.
Examples include Grady's kidney dialysis center and the hospital's pharmacy.
Sen. Vincent Fort, co-chairman of the Grady Coalition, a citizens' group that opposes the restructuring, said the proposed lease agreement between the authority and the new board doesn't give the authority the power to overrule service cuts the board might decide to make.
"This board could close the dialysis center the day they're sworn in, and it's a done deal," said Fort, D-Atlanta.
But Otis Story, Grady's president and CEO, said the new board's first priority in righting the hospital's finances would be finding ways to operate more efficiently rather than reducing services.
"We will not try to cut our way to success," he said. "I'm concerned about improving the efficiency of what we're doing day in and day out," he said.
Edwards pointed out that the lease agreement is still a draft and, thus, subject to change.