Mental health closings displace patients

By Managing Editor

An estimated 484 mental health patients have gone missing since the city consolidated 12 publicly funded mental health clinics into six facilities in April, according to a recent report.

The report, published Oct. 24 by AFSCME Council 31, the union representing the city’s mental health employees, shows that 5,337 patients were being treated by the city-operated clinics before the closings. By July, the Chicago Department of Public Health reported 3,282 active mental health cases but could only account for the whereabouts of 2,798 of those patients, despite its promise to monitor everyone impacted by the closings, according to the report.

The 2,055 patients who left CDPH-operated clinics between the time of the closings and July were transferred to private clinics. However, the 484 who remain unaccounted for have raised concerns.

“We were hearing anecdotally that a lot of people were not getting information about what was happening to the clinics and what was going on with their specific therapist,” said Jo Patton, director of special projects at AFSCME Council 31 and author of the report.

Patton said the CDPH did not give its patients enough notice of the closings nor did it effectively notify them of service changes. The department sent clients letters to communicate changes, which wasn’t the most effective mode of notifying them, she said.

“These are folks who probably have to move around quite a bit, don’t necessarily keep people up to date on their new address and don’t necessarily even track their own mail,” Patton said. “So to have that be the main way you try to reach people about an important issue in their life seems to be a problem.”

Although AFSCME Council 31 claims the CDPH has not adequately communicated with its former patients, CDPH officials say otherwise.

Patients were notified of the clinic closings in February, about three months before the closings began, according to the September CDPH health reform report, which outlines the ongoing transition process implemented in November 2011.

The report states that CDPH therapists met with their clients to devise an individualized transition plan to ensure no one was left without care after the clinics closed. The CDPH claims it also held weekly administrative meetings to discuss the status of the transition process.

“The Department of Public Health has been tracking this data diligently since the transition happened and is pleased with the results they are seeing,” said CDPH spokeswoman Caroline Weisser in an email.

While CDPH officials maintain that six clinics are enough to serve the city’s more than 5,000 mental health patients, several advocacy groups oppose the city’s decision to reduce the number of clinics.

As reported by The Chronicle April 16, the clinics have been closed to cut $2 million—approximately 1 percent—of the city’s 2012 budget, a decision that is still provoking backlash from mental health proponents.

There were once 19 CDPH-operated clinics, but the number was reduced to 12 in the 1990s when former Mayor Richard M. Daley closed seven to reduce costs, according to Michael Snedeker, lead organizer of the Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Services.

These mental health services need to be more widely available because many affected by the closings are unable to travel long distances for alternative treatment options, according to Patton. She said she believes CDPH should re-open the clinics to provide better service and more accessibility to patients.

“Those geographic locations really make a huge difference in terms of the likelihood that people will seek services,” Patton said. “Unfortunately, in the cases of people with mental illness, they often are initially reluctant to pursue any kind of help, so if [they] have to take three buses or fill out a lot of paperwork [to get to the clinic], it means it is less likely they will get the services they need.”