Rally urges city to keep mental health clinics open

CHICAGO – After dozens of mental health patients and community activists led a rally here, August 27, at City Hall to keep five public mental health clinics open, a top city health official said it has no plans of closing any of the 12 centers.

Dr. Terry Mason, Chicago Dept. of Public Health Commissioner made the announcement after the protest, which was in front of Mayor Richard Daley’s office. Over 1,000 letters were delivered to the Mayor’s door urging him to keep the clinics open.

Mason said the city has shifted $2.5 million dollars into the clinics to keep them open. A meeting has been scheduled for next month with city, state and mental health officials to find ways in providing steady funds to keep the clinics operating.

Yet Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, organizer with the Southside Together Organizing for Power, said the whole situation is very tenuous now that the Mayor has back peddled on the issue. We are still concerned that the Mayor is still trying to privatize the public facilities, something he is known for doing with other city institutions, he said.

Ginsberg-Jaeckle said the major concern now is to ensure that both patients/consumers and health care workers with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, be at the table to discuss the matter with city officials.

“We are optimistic that the Mayor has backed off for now but there are still many problems that need correcting,” said Ginsberg-Jaeckle.

N’dana Carter is a patient at the Greater Grand Mental Health Clinic and said she welcomes the news.

“But the Mayor is not always honest,” she said. “True consumers need to be invited and be at the next meeting,” added Carter. “If we are not it says to me the Mayor does not want to keep our clinics open.”

“These clinics and mental health services are worth fighting for because they help people like me and others with a whole grocery list of mental health conditions,” said Carter. “Keeping these clinics open is vital and I hope the Mayor finds the money,” she said.

Earlier in the year four south side facilities were targeted for closure. Yet they remained opened after pressure from community leaders and mental health advocates who staged a sit-in. City officials even promised to rehire 40 employees as a result of layoffs. Since then they have only re-hired 4.

After the clinics were re-opened, city officials said they would look for ways to keep them afloat in the long term, but since the state budget crisis slashed annual funding to $4.2 million from $8.4 million, problems began again.

That’s when city officials suggested closing 5 of the clinics to save money because of the state cutbacks.

Leaders at the rally say much of the problem regarding the lack of funding stems from the city’s failure to get millions in available state funding because of problems with the city’s billing system.

The Chicago Department of Public Health lost more than $1 million in state funding by failing to fix computer problems with its billing system, which sparked a funding crisis and the possible threat of closing four clinics earlier in the year.

City officials blamed the reason behind the possible closings in large part due to the state budget cutbacks.

But according to the Chi-Town Daily News, a trail of paperwork obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that the department’s new computerized billing system was so flawed that patient bills weren’t submitted to the state for six months in 2008.

Billing the state was crucial to getting funds because of the way the state allocates dollars for mental health services. The city’s current-year state payments are based on monthly reimbursements for service. And when the state received no bills from the city for the last four months of the previous fiscal year, it amended the contract it had with the city to reflect the city’s apparent lesser need for funds.

At the rally several patients who receive mental health services were present including Margaret Sullivan who said she was suicidal at one point in her life. Sullivan said the treatment she gets now at her facility literally saved her life. “If there was no clinic for me to go to, I would be dead,” she said.

Linda Hatcher said she too struggles with depression and has been diagnosed as bipolar. “If we didn’t have our clinics then where would we go,” she said. When Hatcher heard that her clinic was suggested for closing she felt hurt and even more rejected. It just didn’t make any sense, she said.

Speakers at the rally said the clinics in question are more than just places where people get medication. They’re communities where people feel safe and at home. If it were not for the mental health clinics patients would end up on the streets, in jails, at emergency rooms or possibly dead, they said.

Activist charge Mayor Daley has millions in the bank from recently privatizing the parking meter system throughout the city that could be tapped into. The Mayor should commit money toward mental health patients who are taxpayers and voters rather than the millions he’s advocating on behalf of for the Olympics, they charge.

Badonna Reingold is a retired social worker and is now on the advisory board with the Woodlawn mental health clinic. She is also a member of the city’s Community Mental Health Board.

Reingold said mental health services are a vital need for the community. “If people who need these services don’t get their treatment then they will continue to suffer and deteriorate in perpetual crisis,” she said.

“It’s the city’s responsibility to maintain these facilities and keep mental health clinics open,” said Reingold. She said it would cost 5-8 million to staff them.

The clinics provide therapy, medication and activities for people with mental illness who can’t get access to city not-for-profit centers that are maximum capacity, activists say.

plozano@pww.org

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