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Rahm aide says mental health clinic closings not to blame for ‘all social ills’

Protest outside a Chicago mental health clinic in 2012

A protest at the Woodlawn Adult Health Clinic, 6337 S. Woodlawn, in 2012. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to consolidate Chicago’s 12 mental health clinics has been blamed for “all social ills,” but it was the “necessary and right thing to do” after devastating state funding cuts, a top mayoral aide said last week.

Testifying at City Council budget hearings, Dr. Julie Morita noted that Chicago had lost “90 percent” of the $8 million in annual state funding used to support its mental health clinics.

“Our staff was spread thinly throughout those 12 clinics that remained. We were concerned that the quality of care we were going to provide was going to be compromised. We were only seeing about 5,000 patients at those 12 sites,” Morita told aldermen Oct. 24.

“The decision was a tough decision. … But I do believe it was the right decision. They consolidated those clinics so we could actually have adequate staffing at each of the remaining six sites, and we could assure that we were providing the type of care we wanted to provide. … Because we were able to focus, we weren’t putting out fires at the 12 clinics. We were actually able to think strategically.”

Morita said Chicago has over 250 mental health sites. Many of them “have the capacity to see more patients.” More than 60 of those sites are federally funded with a “sliding scale” of fees based on a patient’s ability to pay.

“The barrier to people getting the services are, number one, they don’t know where to go to get the services. And the other is fear about having to pay for service,” the commissioner said.

“We really have adequate services. Opening up six new clinics would not solve the problem. What we really need to do is build bridges from the community to existing mental health sites.”

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) strongly disagreed with Morita’s assessment of what turned out to be one of the most controversial cuts Emanuel ever made.

The number of city-run clinics declined again in 2016, when services at the Roseland mental health clinic were “contracted out” to consolidate staff and allow the five remaining city clinics to serve more patients.

Although mental health patients were “supposed to be tracked” to alternative services, “hundreds, if not thousands of people were not,” the alderman said.

“Where did all those people go? Where is the data to show they made it to another clinic?” Waguespack said.

“This was a cost-saving measure. A lot of those people ended up on the streets. I have to disagree that everybody made it somewhere else and everybody was A-OK in where they ended up. They fell off the radar, simply put.”

He added: “We made mistakes in not making sure that the commissioner at the time made the full commitment to make sure those people ended up in the right place. I don’t think they did.”

Emanuel’s final budget includes a $1.4 million increase in mental health spending to “build more bridges” between residents and critical mental health services that already exist in their communities.

The money will also be used to allow a “Chicago Helpline” operated by the National Alliance for Mental Illness to include nights and weekends and make a direct connection to the city’s 311 non-emergency center.

For the first time, the Health Department will also offer “walk-in psychiatric services” and other “walk-in crisis therapy” to as many as 2,100 patients in need each year.

So called “partner sites” will be determined through a competitive bidding process focused on “high-need communities.”

Emanuel’s decision to consolidate mental health clinics has become a flash point in the mayor’s race, as it was four years ago, when he was still a candidate.

Chance the Rapper and his hand-picked mayoral candidate, Amara Enyia, have a shared plan to bolster mental health services and guarantee that Chicago Public Schools students have access to licensed social workers and nurses.

Three weeks ago, Chance used the second annual summit for his SocialWorks charity to announce $100,000 grants to 20 more CPS schools and a $1 million donation to mental health services in Chicago. He also proposed a plan he called “My State of Mind,” which he called a “new way to think about” and access mental health services.