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Aldermen want ‘mental health safety net’ in wake of police shootings

Chicago will face more police shootings that trigger multi-million dollar settlements unless steps are taken to strengthen mental health services devastated by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2012 decision to close six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics, aldermen argued Wednesday.

One week after Emanuel stepped up crisis intervention training for Chicago Police officers and 911 call takers to dramatically improve the city’s response to emergencies involving people suffering from mental illness, eight aldermen argued that the mayor’s response was nowhere near enough.

“The last set of incidents in our city — namely Laquan McDonald and the Quintonio LeGrier — were clear issues where mental health was definitely the reason why these calls were made,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), vice-chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee.

“Our inappropriateness in handling those incidents have led and will lead to multi-million dollar settlements on behalf of the taxpayers, which are funds we definitely could be using elsewhere.”

Joining Ervin in pushing for City Council approval of a so-called “mental health safety net” ordinance were Aldermen Ray Lopez (15th); David Moore (17th); Walter Burnett (27th); Deb Mell (33rd), Nick Sposato (38th); Anthony Napolitano (41st) and James Cappleman (46th).

The ordinance would give the city’s Department of Public Health six months to join three managed care networks. Most Medicaid recipients have made the shift to managed care networks, but the city hasn’t changed with it, so it cannot be reimbursed for providing those mental health services.

The ordinance would further require the city to “vigorously recruit” and hire enough psychiatrists to satisfy demand at its six remaining mental health clinics. Currently, psychiatrists are available at those clinics only “four to six hours a day,” one day a week and new patients are not accepted, mental health advocates claim.

“Our clinics need more psychiatrists. We need to have a psychiatrist—not just one day as in Englewood, but every day,” said Robert Stewart, a clinical therapist at the Englewood Mental Health Center.

Finally, the ordinance would require the Department of Public Health to conduct “more extensive outreach” to make certain that those struggling with mental illnesses are aware of the opportunities for treatment.

Cappleman came to the table from a painful personal place.

“Yesterday was the 48th anniversary of my dad’s death. I bring that up because he had bi-polar [disorder] and P.T.S.D. from being a vet. He committed suicide. So, I’m especially concerned about the plight of people experiencing mental illness,” Cappleman said.

“This city is not responding to those needs of individuals living with mental illness. And those families suffer as well. I know that full well. … We need to do much more.”

Cappleman branded Cook County Jail the “largest institution for people living with mental illness” in the nation.

“We see them discharged, given a slip of paper that states, ‘You have an appointment next week at 10 a.m. Make sure you meet it. And they have no access to any … meds during that time, no money on them and no place to live. And they’re told, ‘Make sure you don’t get arrested again.’ We set them up to fail.”

Napolitano, a former Chicago Police officer-turned-firefighter, noted that shootings and homicides skyrocketed during January, a disturbing anomaly for a cold-weather month that, he believes, has a “direct correlation” to the shortage of mental health services.

Lopez shared the story of a man with a mental illness who walks past his ward office every day and has vandalized that office twice because he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and delusions.

“If we’re not able to find him treatment, he may become the next Quintonio LeGrier or Laquan McDonald. I don’t want that for him. He deserves treatment. He deserves help. And this ordinance allows us to access funding to help expand what we’re able to do in terms of mental health throughout the city,” Lopez said.

Emanuel’s first city budget consolidated the city’s mental health clinics from 12 to 6. Four of the eight aldermen in attendance at Wednesday’s City Hall news conference, including chief sponsor Jason Ervin, voted for those clinic closings.

Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita said she has hired a consultant whose “primary purpose is to assist the city in establishing contracts with insurance companies” for managed care.

In addition, the Health Department has already hired one new psychiatrist after raising the annual salary to just under $200,000 and hopes to fill four more vacancies, even though there is a “national shortage of psychiatrists.”

“We have contract psychiatrists providing service at each of our clinics. But we want permanent psychiatrists at each of our sites,” she said.

But Morita maintained that Ervin’s safety net ordinance would “interfere” with the city’s ability to achieve those goals.

“The plan would impose legal requirements on us to finalize our contracts by a pre-determined time. This undermines our ability to negotiate and could force us into a deal that isn’t good for taxpayers or our patients. If we have an arbitrary time line, we can’t establish good contracts,” the commissioner said.

Last week, Emanuel was ready and waiting with one of his patented lists when asked whether the problems encountered by Chicago’s first-responders might have been exacerbated by his decision to consolidate mental health clinics.

“That’s not actually accurate. Of the 12, six of ‘em are with federally-qualified entities. Number 2, we’ve actually for the first time ever put resources towards psychiatric care, which the city never did and which the advocates asked for,” he said.

“And number three, when I came into office, the mental health system for the city of Chicago had lost 90 percent of its funding from the state because of how poorly it was managed.”