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Health commissioner defends smaller network of mental health clinics

A protest outside the Woodlawn Adult Health Clinic, in early 2012, as the city was cutting the number of city-run mental health clinics in half. | Sun-Times File Photo

Chicago’s shrunken network of five mental health clinics are a “drop in the ocean” compared to the broader network of providers, but the city has no intention of eliminating any more locations, a top mayoral aide said Tuesday.

Six years after Mayor Rahm Emanuel consolidated the city’s mental health clinics, closing six out of 12, Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita was still on the defensive about the move.

With Morita on the hot seat at City Council budget hearings, Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) accused the city of continuing to shrink mental health services at a time when the need has never been greater.

The number of city-run clinics declined again last year, when Cook County assumed control over the Roseland mental health clinic. That paved the way for expanded walk-in services around-the-clock.

Emanuel’s proposed 2018 budget has also raised eyebrows because two positions were re-classified to analyze data and meet operational needs.

“Mental health advocates are concerned this will become a pattern. Does CDPH intend to close another clinic next year to increase staff at the four remaining clinics, then the following year cut staff again saying you don’t need as much staff because there are only four clinics?” Munoz said.

Morita categorically denied that the 2018 job re-classifications were part of a broader plan to get out of the business of serving mental health patients.

She noted that the city plan known as “Healthy Chicago 2.0” established behavioral health as a top priority.

“What we found is that there is insufficient service to meet the needs of behavioral health. So the last thing that we want to do is get out of the business of mental health service,” Morita said.

“The number of mental health service providers in the city is huge and vast. Our five clinics currently are a drop in the ocean. And yet, we feel like it’s necessary to provide these services because we provide the safety net for individuals who are undocumented, who don’t have insurance, who choose to come to us and want to come to us. So we will continue to provide those services.”

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) was not appeased. Not when the mayor’s budget includes only four psychiatrist positions, none of which have been filled.

He argued that “a large percentage” of Chicago’s homeless population has “severe mental health issues that are not addressed” because street teams “that show up on these sites are not equipped to handle” mental health issues.

“We need to focus efforts and resources on helping solve this problem. Or else, this is gonna be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Year in, year out, the same folks will land back on the street without anywhere to go and without any assistance that they need,” Reilly said.

“Certainly the two vacant positions you’re struggling to fill — we’ve got to figure out a better way to do that. The offer you have on the table is awfully good. Maybe it needs to be a bit sweeter. But there’s [also] a demand for a few additional psychiatry positions because our street teams that are interacting with the homeless community are struggling. We’re not having success engaging these individuals and getting them treatment and help.”

Reilly also complained about a plan to set up permanent needle-disposal locations on Lower Wacker Drive and other Central Business District locations where there are a “large and growing number of opioid camps” — groups of homeless people struggling with opioid addiction.

“We’re talking about piles — hundreds upon hundreds of used hypodermic needles. I’m all about getting those cleaned up and taken away. But once you put in permanent stations down there or start installing lots of these boxes, that tells the two rival gangs that are fighting for that heroin business, ‘This is a great place to set up shop and shoot at one another,” Reilly said.

“The last two years, we’ve had rival gangs shooting one another on Lower Wacker and other areas of the city fighting over the homeless population’s heroin addicts.”

Morita insisted that the Health Department has no such plan to set up permanent disposal sites.