Protestors Target Clinic Closures


After months of marches and protests, mental health patients and their advocates finally got their chance to meet with some of their public officials to plead their case about stopping four of their health care facilities in low-income areas from closing next month.

Anne Irving, director of public policy of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Emloyees (AFSME), accusing Dr. Terry Mason of failing to work effectively with them, during the townhall meeting at the 1st Presbyterian Church on February 12.
Photo by Mary C. Johns

The mental health clinics all located on the South Side of the city slated for closure are: Back of the Yards, 4313 S. Ashland Ave., Beverly/Morgan Park, 1987 W. 111th St., Greater Grand/Mid-South, 4314 S. Cottage Grove, and the Woodlawn Adult Health Center, 6337 S. Woodlawn Ave.

The mental health services will be folded into the remaining clinics at Auburn Gresham, 1140 W. 79th St.; Englewood, 641 W. 63rd St.; Greater Lawn, 4150 W. 55th St.; Lawndale, 1201 S. Campbell; Northtown/Rogers Park, 1607 W. Howard; Northwest, 2354 N. Milwaukee; North River, 5801 N. Pulaski; and Roseland, 28 E. 112th Place.

The Roseland Mental Health Center will move four blocks southeast into the current Roseland Community Health Center, 200 E. 115th Street.

At a town hall meeting hosted by Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) and the Community and Woodlawn Mental Health Boards at the 1st Presbyterian Church on March 12, the participants, including union workers at some of the mental health facilities, prayed together, made presentations, introduced guest speakers, and heard testimonials. They also talked about picketing outside of the Chicago Department of Public Health later in the month.

The patients and STOP members sought out seven commitments from public officials in an attempt to save the clinics from closing.

They asked for an immediate, indefinite moratorium on the closures of all mental health clinics in Chicago; restoration of the cut-backs in personnel; a doubling of funding for the city’s mental health budget; full city council hearings on the clinic closures; and a meeting with Mayor Richard M. Daley or his chief of staff.

They also asked city officials to tour the clinics scheduled to close on April 7, and suggested taking mental health services out of the Department of Public Health.

Darryl Gumm, chair of the Community Health Board, said: “We’re here tonight because we realize that if given the chance, treatment works. After there are records of many suicides, killings, robberies, assaults, crimes. I wonder what our records would show or our computers could show as to how many of those events were prevented due to community mental health centers. The other end of that question is what happens in our communities when those centers are no more? Has anybody considered that?” he asked.

Then some of the people drilled city Health Commissioner Dr. Terry Mason with questions and comments about the closing of the mental health facilities.

The Bout with Dr. Mason
During his presentation, Mason said the city didn’t want to close the clinics or inconvenience the patients. He said the city’s financial crisis created the need for the clinics to shut down, and added that the city didn’t have a public discourse on the closures because of a short time frame for which cuts had to be made. Mason said he considered various options to cut costs but ultimately decided not to leave clinics open with too few staff members.

28th ward Alderman Ed Smith (left) and City Public Health Commissioner Dr. Terry Mason listening to patients and their advocates speak against the closing of teh four mental health facilities, during the townhall meeting at the 1st Presbyterian Church on February 12.
Photo by Mary C. Johns

“What service would it have been to have two or three people over here or two or three or four people over there? What good would that have been just to have a place open?” Mason said.

“Just because people are poor doesn’t mean that they should be subjected to a second-class kind of service. And though we can’t provide the services everywhere in the right way, then we will do it the right way we can in places that we can do it.”

Simon also confirmed the reports that the Public Health department’s new computer system was flawed, which created problems with billing the State of Illinois. In response to an audience member’s question of how the billing problems affected the flow of the state money, Mason confirmed that the system’s defects resulted in a reduction of the clinics’ funding by the state.

“We made a lot of mistakes…that were not any body’s fault,” Mason said. “It was just us learning how to use the system.

“The two biggest cuts that we received were from the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois,” he said.

Mason told the meeting participants that the health department’s employees’ problems with their new computer system resulted in fewer people being served. The department was working to improve their performance.

“We have worked a lot at improving those systems,” Mason said. “It takes time for people to learn how to properly use it and even though we’re doing billing now, there are a number of errors that have to be corrected because there were things that were done that were a reflection of us all trying to learn this.

“We’re not perfect.”

But Mason’s explanation didn’t sit well with some of the audience members.

“Well, I appreciate your honesty,” said one man in the crowd. “I just want to make it clear. What you said is ‘We made a lot of mistakes.’ And what we’ve learned tonight is that when people in the city bureaucracy make a lot of mistakes, two things happen: One, four clinics get closed on the South Side of the city. And two, the mayor won’t talk to us. That’s something to learn.”

Fred Freeman wanted to know why Mason didn’t inform City Council members of the need for cutbacks in his recent meeting with them.

“You’re only talking about half of the cutbacks in the funding. The other half came from the city and you didn’t tell, according to your testimony on Tuesday to the City Council, that this was going to cause cutbacks,” Freeman said.

“There was a question in the City Council put forth to you in which you responded by saying, ‘No, this wasn’t going to cause any cutbacks.’

“Even if you couldn’t provide the city the funding information that almost every other health care provider managed to provide, why didn’t you explain that the cutback from the city funding was going to cause cutback in services?”

Simon said the cuts in the city budget would not have required the clinics’ closure on their own. He said the state’s budget cuts came after the city’s budget passed last year.

State Employee Refutes Mason
In defense of state employees, Anne Irving, director of public policy of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), accused Mason of failing to work effectively with them. Irving read from a Sept. 24, 2008 letter signed by Mason addressed to Dr. Lori Jones, a director in the state Department Mental Health Services, and said Mason’s computer system was not up to par to work with the State’s computer system.

“We need to talk about accountability,” Irving said. “And I have here a letter that you sent to…Jones, the director of the division of mental health in the state Department Mental Health Services.

“This wasn’t about our folks having trouble working computers. The software that you’ve chosen to use was not compatible with the state’s software and when we met with your office on Feb. 26, they still were not submitting bills to the state.

“And so the state said, ‘If you can’t get your computer software up and running which every other provider has been able to do, then we’re going to take your money away.’ Now, if that’s happening in September, why during the budget hearings were you not coming to the aldermen and saying, ‘We have a crisis on our hands because we made a mistake and we’re going to need some city money to see us through this problem?’ That’s the kind of responsibility we want to see on this issue.”

Aldermen Promise to Carry on the Fight
Aldermen Willie Cochran (20th) and Ed. Smith (28th) were also on hand to answer questions. Cochran, who is against the closure of the mental health clinics, said the current economic hardship would cause mental stress for more people.

“I am in support of maintaining the clinics in their present locations,” Cochran said. “This is not the time to close. It is the time to invest. We are going through all kinds of mental stresses in our economy today that are affecting families that have never been affected before.

“When people don’t get treated, it becomes a more costly process. It burdens the police department. It overburdens the hospitals…families, communities [and] puts people in physical threat and harm to themselves. We don’t want that,” said Cochran.

Cochran added that he was fighting for more funding to restore the health care provider jobs, create more jobs, and keep all the clinics open.

Smith, who chairs the City Council’s Health Committee, said he has a niece with mental health problems.

“I have no problem in going to Springfield or wherever to lobby…to try and keep these centers open,” Smith said “So, don’t feel for one single minute that I don’t care. And I will do whatever I possibly can to help make this situation form,” he said.

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