PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday August 19th, 2014, 5:46pm

Chicago Activists, Progressive Aldermen Call For Reopening Of Mental Health Clinics (VIDEO)

Progress Illinois provides highlights from Tuesday's Chicago City Council hearing on mental health services.

Chicago's public health commissioner got grilled by activists Tuesday afternoon at a long-awaited informational council hearing on mental health services in the city.

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) and other members of the council's Progressive Reform Caucus requested the hearing back in April to gather expert and public testimony on “the future of the Chicago Department of Public Health mental health clinics and the need for expanded mental health services within the city." 

Ahead of the hearing, Progressive Reform Caucus members vowed to get increased funding for the city's mental health clinics included in the city's 2015 budget. They also promised to keep the fight alive to reopen six mental health clinics that closed two years ago.

In 2012, six of Chicago's 12 mental health clinics shut down as part of a city strategy to modernize and enhance mental health services, with a focus on serving the uninsured. The six mental health clinics that closed were located in the city's Auburn-Gresham, Back of the Yards, Logan Square, Morgan Park, Rogers Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods.

"Two years after starting our reforms, Chicago's mental health system today is stronger than it was," Dr. Bechara Choucair, the Chicago Department of Public Health's commissioner, said at the hearing, held by the council's Health and Environmental Protection Committee. "Do we have a perfect mental health system in Chicago today? Absolutely not."

"Is our mental health system better than it was two years ago," he asked, to which audience members erupted in shouts of "No!"

"Absolutely, yes," Choucair said.

The Chicago City Council unanimously passed a budget in November of 2011 that authorized the clinic closings. The council has not held a public hearing before or since that vote examining mental health care until today.

"We made that vote, and it was probably the worst vote I ever made, and I apologized sometime there later about the closures," Fioretti said at a news conference ahead of the hearing. "We were told certain information, and if we would have had other information, that vote would have never happened that way by many of us, if not everyone in the city council."

Progressive Reform Caucus Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) also apologized for the 2011 vote.

"We were told no one was going to get lost [and] everyone was going to get served," Sawyer told Progress Illinois before the hearing. "We relied on that when we made a decision. I'm sorry if people were not being served because of that. I am deeply sorry, but I want to make that right." 

Sawyer said he believes aldermen can find the approximately $2 million needed to reopen the six clinics in the 2015 city budget.

"I have no specific ideas [about where to find the money], but it's $2 million out of an almost $6 billion budget," the alderman said. "I'm sure we can find $2 million somewhere ... If I have to give up $40,000 of my menu money, I will. It's that important to me to get this done ... We haven't started looking yet, but I'm sure it won't be that difficult."

Organizers with the citywide Mental Health Movement coalition, a fierce opponent of the clinic closings in 2012, called today's hearing long overdue. The coalition includes the Woodlawn neighborhood group Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) as well as mental health patients.

"All of our aldermen and all of the people that live in the city will learn how people were affected, how people lost their lives when the clinics closed, how more jails became the place for people with mental health [illnesses] to live," N’Dana Carter, a consumer advocate with the Mental Health Movement, said before the hearing, which ran from for more than four hours.

Here's more from Carter and Fioretti ahead of today's hearing:

Veronica Morris-Moore with the Mental Health Movement and the Trauma Care Coalition, which has been fighting for an adult trauma center on the South Side for four years, called the city's decision to close half of its public mental health centers "idiotic." 

"It's a slap in the face to all these people who care about … this city," she told aldermen and Choucair. "We need those services." 

During his 40-minute presentation, Choucair said the city retained the majority of its licensed clinical staff from the six closed clinics and all of the psychiatrists.

Prior to the clinic closures, the city had nearly 2,800 active mental health patients, he said.

During the transition process, 429 "clinically stable" city mental health patients with insurance were directed to community mental health providers. The city then "monitored client progress at 30 [days] and 60 days to ensure a successful transition," according to Choucair's slide show presentation. Of those 429 patients, only 63 have since opted to seek care at the city's existing mental health clinics over the outside providers, Choucair said.

Currently, the six clinics serve between 2,100 to 2,500 clients at any one point in time, the public health commissioner said.

"We continue to accept new clients every day," he stressed. "No clients are turned away."

Over recent years, Choucair said the city has also made millions of dollars worth of targeted city mental health investments. And during the upcoming 2015 budget talks, the health department plans to ask for additional funds to expand restorative justice programs in the city's public schools as well as mental health services for children who are victims of sexual assault, among other investments.

Some public health activists, however, believe many city mental health patients have fallen through the cracks since the clinics closed. According to the Mental Health Movement, the city's mental health system had 5,000 people on its rolls prior to the clinic closures.

"Now you're saying there [are] only 2,000 people ... that were being treated by those clinics, and you managed to keep all of those 2,000 people enrolled," asked Morris-Moore.

"That is a bold-faced lie," she told Choucair and aldermen.

Carter also called the city's transition process for patients "just a publicity stunt," arguing that many impacted clients were not tracked. 

The Cook County Jail, meanwhile, currently serves more people with mental illness than the city of Chicago, noted Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia with the Cook County Sheriff's Office.

The jail, she said, currently houses some 2,800 individuals with mental illness. 

"We are in a state of emergency," Tapia stressed, adding that the jail is often overcrowded and in need of more comprehensive services to help those with mental illness.

Mental Health Movement members and others urged city leaders to reopen the six closed clinics. They also want to see increased funding and staffing for the city's mental health facilities included in next year's city budget. Additionally, Mental Health Movement leaders called on the Chicago Department of Public Health to join a Medicaid managed care network, like County Care, in order to become a coordinated care mental health provider. Fioretti and other Progressive Reform Caucus aldermen stood in support of the group's demands.

"The clinics need revenue, and people should be able to use city services regardless of insurance types," Fioretti said on the issue of Medicaid managed care networks. 

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