One of the largest providers of mental health services to poor North Siders is closing — just as the state braces for massive mental health care cuts.
And Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office is warning that means there will soon be more mentally ill people in jail.
Community Counseling Centers of Chicago — which cares for more than 10,000 patients, including children — is closing its doors May 31 in a move mental health care experts say will be devastating for its patients.
The center was founded in 1972 to help people released from psychiatric hospitals into Edgewater and Uptown. Over the years it expanded to five locations, all of which will now close, the organization’s CEO Eileen Durkin confirmed Friday.
C4’s closure comes as lawmakers debate Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposals to slash $82 million from mental health programs.
Durkin acknowledged the cuts would have affected C4. But she blamed a billing issue as the reason for closure. After the center upgraded their medical records system as required by the Affordable Care Act, a glitch in the way the records and billing systems were linked prevented C4 from sending out bills last fall, she said.
“We went for six weeks without being able to get a bill out the door,” Durkin said. That all but cut off C4’s cash flow, she said.
“Like a lot of nonprofits, we don’t have a diversified revenue stream,” she added.
“We pretty much live and die by our billing.”
According to the center’s 2013 annual report and tax records, however, the center received $12.8 million in federal funding, $3.9 million from the state’s Department of Public Aid and $1.06 million in Medicaid and Medicare client fees. It also received $388,000 in contributions and $179,000 in public grants.
Durkin said she is working with the state to place clients with other mental health programs.
Children and adolescents receive half of the center’s services, adults with mental health needs get another third and the remainder are treated for substance-abuse problems, according to the center’s annual report.
Mental health care in Chicago was already limited. The closure in 2012 of six city-run mental health clinics sent many mentally ill patients to the Cook County Jail, critics say.
“People are sad and angry and frustrated,” Durkin said. “It’s horrible.”
Brian Richardson, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Health, said on Friday that the department is trying to make sure clients get the help they need.
“The closing of C4 is very concerning as the organization plays a valuable role in Chicago’s mental health system,” Richardson said.
The transition of C4 patients isn’t going to be easy, according to Amy Watson, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Jane Addams College of Social Work.
“The other agencies don’t really have the capacity to absorb anymore clients and for some people that means going outside of their community,” said Watson. “It means developing new relationships. It’s not realistic. There are going to be a lot of people that aren’t able to reconnect to a provider, at least not in a smooth transition.”
Watson said C4 served many Hispanic patients, who will have a hard time finding bilingual services elsewhere. She called C4’s closure “devastating.”
“People are going to be stacked up in the emergency rooms. You may have some people that end up in the jail . . . because there’s nowhere else to bring them,” Watson said. “Some people may die. It’s just devastating all around and it’s not really going to save money. It’s probably going to overall cost more money.”
That increased cost would come from emergency room visits, police and jail responses, she said.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has long called the jail the “largest mental health hospital” where patients are “criminalized.”
“This closure will dramatically exacerbate the crisis felt by those suffering from mental illness who cannot access care,” sheriff’s office spokesman Ben Breit said. “We expect to immediately feel the impact of these cuts on our jail population.”