Every day I drive south on Juniper Street from Midtown to Downtown Atlanta. Every day I am reminded of the diversity that exists in this city. My drive starts in Midtown surrounded by high rises. I drive south and the scenery changes. I cross over Ponce de Leon and the traffic picks up. At a traffic light I notice around 20 of Atlanta’s 10,000 homeless sleeping beside buildings and on several church steps. After I park my car, I walk up to the medical wards at Grady Memorial Hospital. My patients are as equally diverse as my drive to work. I may see a business man with influenza, a woman with newly diagnosed HIV, a traveler from Asia diagnosed with malaria or an older gentleman whose family struggles to comprehend the news of his advanced prostate cancer.
I am a new transplant to Atlanta from another southern state. I moved here because of what I saw and felt when I walked into Grady for the first time. I could feel that this place was a safe haven for Atlanta’s citizens. Working at Grady has been an honor. The employees work cohesively, developing creative solutions to some of the most difficult problems imaginable. These problems, I have learned, don’t end with how to treat my patients–they extend to how to pay for the care these patients deserve.
It was announced recently that Fulton County may cut $25 million in funding for Grady from their budget. This represents half of the support the county has given in prior years. This loss will be particularly devastating to Grady as the hospital faces decreased federal funding in the upcoming year and would terminate such services as mental health and primary care. These critical services will lead to the loss of 66,000 mental health appointments and 110,000 primary care appointments annually. As a physician training at Grady, I recently saw a young man suffering from diabetes who was previously unable to receive care due to lack of insurance. Now on the appropriate medical therapy and feeling better, he has just reentered the workforce.
Some may try to rest comfortably, rationalizing the cuts as affecting only those citizens who cannot afford to pay for their care. That could not be any further from the truth. For example, last month I was a part of a team treating a previously healthy, fully insured, 40-year-old woman who suffered a blood clot to her lungs. She never anticipated needing Grady’s services, but has repeatedly expressed gratitude to the large team that cared for her and continues to follow in our clinics.
These cuts will have a rippling effect. Our emergency departments will see increased volume, that is, expensive, often uncompensated care replacing more affordable and efficient outpatient services. Our citizens who suffer from mental health problems will be abandoned. Emergent psychiatric admissions will strain our already busy inpatient services and potentially force premature discharges of the mentally ill.
Cutting Grady’s budget is a poor short-term solution leaving many of our most vulnerable citizens without options for receiving critical medical care and crippling Grady’s mission. Mahatma Gandhi challenged the ideas by which we govern, saying, “The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.” Will our elected leaders choose to reinforce the safety net that is Grady Hospital, or will they choose to cut invaluable services that protect our vulnerable citizens? We have to ask our lawmakers tough questions. Let them know what Grady means to you, your family, your city and your state.
I hope to continue driving to work with the sense of purpose I have had since walking through the door my first day, knowing I am part of a safe haven for those who fall through the cracks of healthcare.
Please call the Fulton County Board of Commissioners at 404-612-8200 to express your concerns.
Cameron Lambert is a resident physician in internal medicine within Emory University School of Medicine. While in training, he works at Grady Hospital, Emory University Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown and the Atlanta Veterans Medical Center. He is originally from Raleigh, N.C.
Illustration by Katrina Worsham