Mental health centers say budget cuts mean crime, higher costs

The city's mental health community has a message for the governor: Give us back our funding or deal with consequences.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has cut $137 million from substance abuse and mental health programs across the state to close a budget shortfall.

"When you don't have treatment available, crime goes up. Stealing, prostitution," says Leo Miller, vice president of support services at Haymarket Center, a substance abuse treatment clinic on the near West side. "Ultimately, we all end up paying for it."

The cuts mean that 25,350 children and adults in Chicago will not get the treatment they need, says Marvin Lindsey of Community Behavioral Healthcare Association of Illinois, an advocacy organization for substance abuse and mental health treatment.

"That means increases in homelessness, crime, family break ups, health care costs, school drop outs and crack babies," says Lindsey. "You just leave people without a safety net, and they just kind of fall through the cracks.

Lindsey says the impact could be devastating on a city that's already seeing rising crime and a sluggish economy. 

In July, the governor enacted line-item vetoes on $55 million in funding for the Department of Alcohol and Substance abuse and another $45 million for the Department of Children and Family Services. In late August, he cut $35.6 million more from the Department of Mental Health. The cuts also put an additional $60 million in federal matching funds in jeopardy. 

In September, the Illinois House and Senate passed legislation restoring the funding to last year's levels.

Blagojevich is waiting to see what revenues will be like before he signs the bill. He says tough economic times forced him to make the cuts.

"These were not decisions he wanted to make. They were decisions he had to make," says Katie Ridgway, Blagojevich's press secretary. 

He has until the first week in December to sign the bill.

Staffs at the city's facilities are urging Chicago residents to call the governor and ask him to do so.

Linda Malstrom, director of Recovery Point, a substance abuse treatment center on the North Side, says the cuts don't make sense because the treatment programs save money in the long run. Recovery Point is just one of six facilities operated by the Community Counseling Centers of Chicago, which lost a total of about $1.5 million in the cuts.

For every dollar spent on treatment programs, society saves $7 in reduced health care costs, crime and increased employment earnings, according to a 2005 UCLA study. 

"The cuts don't save the governor any money, don't keep the citizens safer, don't keep property safer, and [don't] help our struggling health care system," Malstrom says.

Recovery Point lost 42 percent of its total funding. It had to shut down a work release program at the Westside Correctional Center and stop special treatment for clients who are dealing with both mental illness and substance abuse.

Anita Jenke, the director of development at The Women's Center, surveys an empty room on the 5th floor at the facility. State budget cuts for substance abuse programs have forced the center and others like it to close residential wings. / By Megan Cottrell

The cuts mean clinics like Recovery Point cannot bill for case management services. When a person enters substance abuse treatment, Malstrom says, they don't just need help kicking the habit – they also need help putting their life back together. This often means finding new housing, going to court for custody or legal reasons, getting access to social services or job placement.

It used to be that social workers could help their clients with these important steps, but the cuts have meant that every time someone provides these services, the center loses money.

Malstrom says she feels terrible when a client calls needing help, and she doesn't have the resources to provide them with what they need.

"I'm not listening as well. I sit here watching the clock," Malstrom says. "They might ask, 'Can you go to the E.R. with me? I'm afraid to go alone.' I used to be able to go. Now, if I do, we lose money. Today, I've had two crisis calls, but how many more can we afford to do? "

Other clinics are also feeling the squeeze of budget cuts. Haymarket had to fire more than 42 staff members and close 100 treatment beds in response to a $4 million cut.

The Women's Treatment Center, a city facility where women can stay with their children as they recover from addiction, closed an entire residential wing, a transitional living facility, and let 25 staff go. Managers took a 25 percent pay cut.

Staff at the city's facilities are worried about the long-term consequences of the cuts, not only on their clients, but also on the city as a whole. They're urging city residents to call the governor and tell him to restore the money by the deadline.

"When you don't have treatment available, crime goes up. Stealing, prostitution," says Leo Miller, vice president of support services at Haymarket. "Ultimately, we all end up paying for it."