Mental health center patients plead their case

  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • March 10, 2009 @ 3:00 PM

Opponents of the plan to consolidate Chicago’s city-run mental health centers  called on City Council to stop the closures, while aldermen grilled health department head Dr. Terry Mason about the way the centers have been managed.

But unless funds in city coffers can be moved to fund the centers, they will close April 7.

About 100 people, many wearing pins depicting a stop sign, attended the meeting of the council's Health Committee this morning, during which Mason and others detailed the changes facing the mental health centers.

Mason told the committee that the Chicago Department of Public Health tried to work with the state to continue fund the mental health centers, but there was nothing he could do once the state’s budget was complete in October.

The Department of Human Services notified the health department in August that it would withhold $1.2 million, one of several hits the city budget took, leading to the choice to close four South Side centers.

A 2006 city council resolution barred further closing or privatization of the city’s mental health centers.

Alderman Ed Smith (D-28) said extraordinary circumstances could trump the binding document.

“Even though it might be binding, extenuating circumstances might change what’s binding,” he said last week.

Alderman Robert Fioretti (D-2) complained that the city council was not involved enough in the decision to shutter the centers.

“I feel like we were taken in this whole process,” he said.

But Mason said his hands were tied.

“Was there an opportunity to have a public discourse on this? There wasn’t anything to discuss,” he said.

The budget was further hampered by a $1.3 million loss in private grant funding, according to Mason.

While Mason put the blame on the state’s shoulders, advocates and patients of the mental health care centers said aldermen should ensure there are no closures on April 7.

“It’s your obligation…to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves,” said Fred Friedman, a patient at the Northtown/Rogers Park clinic, which is not being closed.

Friedman said it would be difficult for patients to seek treatment at different facilities.

“Most people who are mentally ill aren’t in a position to do that,” he said. “You might not think it’s difficult to go another six months (without an appointment) or another three blocks. I’m telling you, it is.”

Alderman George Cardenas (D-12) says the city must call on Springfield to get back funding for the centers.

“These are tough times. To be closing centers when there’s more demand for services, there’s nothing worse than when people’s wellness comes in to play,” he says.

While it might make sense to consolidate some centers due to staffing and budget issues, he thinks some of the centers should be saved.

“Let’s not close all of them, for Christ’s sake,” he says.

Trina Carpenter, a patient at the Beverly-Morgan Park center, complained the city’s priorities are not in order, noting the millions of dollars spent in Chicago's Olympic bid.

Cardenas agreed.

“This is what’s troubling. Sometimes when you push yourself to do great things, you don’t take care of some of the basic stuff. We’ve got to take a step back and say at what cost are we willing to get the Olympics?” he says. “If we’re ambitious enough to get the Olympics, let’s be ambitious enough to take care of our own people.”

Cardenas says he hopes money can be moved around to fund at least some of the centers.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not dead,” he said.

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