Advocates hope to save S. Side mental health centers

  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • March 06, 2009 @ 7:00 AM

Opponents of the city’s plan to close four of its 12 mental health centers are banking on a last ditch effort to save the facilities, which are scheduled to close April 7.

Dr. Terry Mason, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, is set to appear before City Council's health committee Tuesday, as advocates of the mental health centers plead for more time to discuss the closures.

“We hope to stop the closings and give the chance for some restructuring and negotiations with the city to take on more responsibility to beef up the program,” says Bedonna Reingold, a member of the Community Mental Health Board of Chicago.

About 2,000 patients will be affected when the centers, all on the South Side, close. The city will continue to operate eight mental health centers.

Health department officials say state budget reductions, including a $1.2 million cuts from the Illinois Department of Human Services, led to the plan to close the centers.

City health spokesman Tim Hadac says that after the cuts, the city only has enough mental health workers to staff six or seven centers. 

“At each of the 12 clinics, there is simply not enough professional staff and support staff to serve the patients effectively,” Hadac said in February. But Reingold wonders if that is the case.

“We’re questioning whether they can really give the same service with the same staff to the same number of people,” she says. “How are those five centers going to absorb those people?”

The city is planning on moving forward with the closures, Hadac says.

“Patients are aware of it, and already getting acclimated to the idea,” he says. “At this point, you have to wonder if perhaps the activists would consider that a reversal might be disruptive to the patients.”

Activists argue, however, that closing the South Side centers and giving patients the option to find treatment at other centers, would do more damage than good.

“It leaves a lot of questions of the ability of the staff to meet those case loads, questions about the accessibility of services if they are located in other parts of the city,” says Anders Lindall, spokesman for the AFSME union, which represents city mental health workers. “We’re talking about people who are vulnerable, who are often in the throes of a mental health crisis … They feel like the city is abandoning them.”

When the health committee meets Tuesday, the focus will be on Mason and how the city arrived at this point.

The Illinois Department of Human Services says it pulled the $1.2 million after it determined the city was not providing adequate service to patients.

“The mental health department didn’t adequately bill the state or show they were providing service,” says Marielle Sainvilus, a department spokeswoman.

But Hadac says the department made no mention of those problems in an August letter, which attributed the cuts to budget issues.

Reingold says keeping the centers open would benefit patients.

“We don’t know what will happen,” she says. “The expectation is that a lot of people will fall away from treatment.

“A lot end up in jail or on the streets.”

Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17