Med students, patients fight UIC clinic closure

  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • April 23, 2009 @ 9:00 AM

Over the past five years, Blanca Rivera, has gotten to know the medical staff at Pilsen's Center for Women and Families.

The staff knows the 20-year-old's needs and those of her nine-month-old daughter, Kaylee. Rivera says she doesn't know what she'll do when the center closes June 30.

"I really don't want to leave," she says. "They treat you good."

The University of Illinois at Chicago operates the clinic, and says it has lost about $200,000 annually for the five years it has been open.

The clinic, 1858 W. 18th St., serves more than 6,500 people a year. It specializes in women's health, including nurse-midwifery, family medicine and pre- and post-natal services. It serves a largely Spanish-speaking, low-income population.

Medical students and patients are mounting a drive to keep the facility open.

"We’re built on this urban mission. This university was established in this gentrified neighborhood between the two campuses. We have to be respectful to those around us," says Yalda Afshar, a medical and graduate student at UIC.

She and others worry that closing clinic will eliminate important cultural understandings shared by staff and patients.

"Medicine (and) prescription drugs are important," she says. But, "health is more than that. It's your physical, mental and social well-being, as well."

Backers of the clinic say the move will hurt patients, who would have to seek treatment elsewhere. The university says staff members will move to the UIC's outpatient center, located near Stroger Hospital;

University spokeswoman Jeanne Galatzer-Levy says UIC tried to get federal funding for the center, but did not qualify. Further, the center, she says, does not reap in enough Medicare reimbursements.

"During its entire lifetime, there have been lots of work done to try and stem that, but at this point, given the budget considerations and the economy, we just had to make a decision," she says.

As UIC began to trim 5 percent of its budget - about $25 million - to cope with the statewide budget crisis, the center became a target. Plans to close the clinic were leaked in advance, and advocates complain the university is not being transparent with its plans.

But Galatzer-Levy says UIC was holding off on an official announcement until all the details were set.

"It's unfortunate, because we would have tried to have all our ducks in a row, have everything together, before we announced it," she says.

Monica Velazquez, a nurse at the center, says staff was informed of the closure last week.

"Patients, from the get-go," she says, "They're not happy, they're disappointed. They've established their care here."

Velazquez says the clinic is beginning to inform patients of the closure.

Afshar says some UIC medical students are disappointed in the plan because they want to work in community clinics like the Center for Women and Families.

"I hope to be working with these vulnerable populations when I finish this training, and I’m also losing an opportunity to train there," she says.

Galatzer-Levy says UIC has a training agreement with three Alivio community clinics spread across the Near West Side.

To protest the closure, a group of UIC medical students - representing the University of Illinois at Chicago Healthcare Students Against Discrimination - are holding a rally at 12 p.m. outside the UIC Hospital, 1801 Taylor, at noon.

The group plans to present university representatives a petition signed by more than 1,000 opponents of the plan to close the clinic.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the UIC spokeswoman's name is Jeanne Galatzer-Levy. An earlier version of the article gave an incorrect name. 

Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.