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Mental health advocates blast Emanuel's clinic closings

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s two-year-old plan to close six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics came under withering attack Tuesday, with advocates accusing the mayor of throwing Chicago’s most vulnerable residents to the wolves.

Cut off from familiar therapists and forced to travel longer for treatment, thousands of patients fell through the cracks, sometimes tearful mental health advocates claimed.

Some desolved into depression or returned to past addictions. Others were arrested, turning Cook County Jail into, what Sheriff Tom Dart has called the “largest mental health hospital” where patients are “criminalized” instead of being given the care they desperately need.

On Tuesday, mental health advocates and their City Council allies aired their bill of particulars against Emanuel, first at a news conference, then at a public hearing that dragged on for hours.

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who is mulling a campaign for mayor against Emanuel, reiterated his apology for the vote he cast in favor of the mayor’s first budget, balanced, in part, with the clinic closings.

“It was probably the worst vote I ever made. We were told certain information. And if we would have had other information, that vote would never have happened — by many of us, if not everyone in the City Council,” Fioretti said.

“Do we want a City Hall that closes its back on clinics and public schools and turns its back on Chicagoans most in need? Or do we want a City Hall that stands up for the needs of all citizens, especially those who don’t have much money and… need the extra support.”

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) added, “We were told when we voted on this that no one would be left behind. That obviously was not the case. For that, I am truly sorry. We let you down. But an old friend once told me, `When you make mistakes, that’s why they put erasers on pencils.’ You can change mistakes. You can make it right.”

N’Dana Carter, a spokeswoman for the Mental Health Movement, branded Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair a “liar” for claiming that the city is providing more mental health care with six clinics than it ever did with twelve.

“Never trust numbers that don’t put faces to it and change every other week,” Carter said.

“Smoke and mirrors is fine for the circus, but this is not a circus. This is human lives…. When they closed the clinics, a lot of people had nowhere to go. We’re talking about a few hundred initially that rolled into thousands…. We don’t know where a lot of them have gone.”

Carter urged Chicagoans to call their aldermen, call the mayor and make three demands: re-open all six shuttered clinics; order the Department of Public Health to accept Medicaid patients and bolster funding for mental health services in the city’s 2015 budget.

“A city cannot thrive if more than 20 percent suffers. If your brother falls, he falls on you — and your brothers and sisters are falling. We are our brother’s keeper,” she said.

At an unrelated news conference that preceded Tuesday’s hearing, Emanuel stuck to his well-worn script: The clinic consolidation that saved the city $2 million has worked for both the city and its mental health patients.

“Because of the reforms, we have more clinics with more visits and we use the resources — not to actually deal with just the budget deficit. We finally addressed the concerns of lack of psychiatric care. It’s close to about 4,500-to-5,000 more people now are receiving psychiatric care, a benefit we could not do because of the way we structured it,” Emanuel said, citing his work in Congress on mental health issues.

“The goal is to get more people health care coverage quality coverage…. We’ve expanded coverage to more people and, more importantly than just more people, expanded also new benefits like psychiatric care that never existed because the old system did not loosen up the resources…. Making the touch choices, the reforms necessary to achieve the goals.”

Five years ago, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley tried to close four mental health clinics, only to back off under pressure after it was revealed that a faulty billing system had forced the state to withhold $1 million in funding from the city.