Closure Of Chicago Mental Health Clinics Looms

By the end of the month, Chicago plans to shut down six of its 12 public mental health clinics. It's a decision that's brought clinic barricades, arrests and a 24-7 vigil by protesters who hope to keep the clinics open. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says the consolidation plan will actually mean more care for the mentally ill.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

To Chicago now where a plan to close city-run mental health clinics has prompted protests. Nearly three dozen demonstrators have been jailed. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has set a Monday deadline for half the city's mental health clinics to be closed. He says the plan, which would send some patients to private clinics, will improve care.

As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, mental health patients and their advocates aren't convinced.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Until recently, Chicago's Public Health Department ran 12 outpatient mental health clinics, serving about 3,000 people. The city shut down two clinics earlier this month. That's when patients and mental health care advocates showed up in force at city hall and at one of the clinics the city plans to close.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

CORLEY: Some of the protesters barricaded themselves inside the Woodlawn Adult Health Center while others chanted outside. Police eventually dismantled the barricades and began what would be a series of arrests.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS SHOUTING)

CORLEY: Now, the patients and advocates use the Occupy movement as their motto as they hold a round-the-clock vigil in an empty lot across the street from the Woodlawn clinic.

Horace Howard, who is bipolar, visits his therapists at Woodlawn for treatment. He's been arrested twice during the protests and says closing the clinics means more mentally ill will be incarcerated or end up in the hospital.

HORACE HOWARD: I didn't go to jail for peeing outside, drinking. I didn't go to jail for sleeping in an abandoned building. I went to jail so other people won't go to jail because we need these public services open.

CORLEY: Rosalyn Witherspoon, who's been diagnosed with schizophrenia, agrees with Howard. She's upset by the arrests.

ROSALYN WITHERSPOON: They arrested people just 'cause they got their human rights, the right to go to a mental clinic and they arrest the people 'cause they believe in that.

CORLEY: Witherspoon goes to a clinic in another neighborhood. It will remain open. Chicago public health officials call the closures a consolidation plan, which will allow the city to partner with more than 60 community-based mental health clinics. They'll take care of the clinics who have insurance, typically Medicaid, while the Public Health Department focuses on the uninsured, about 80 percent of the mentally ill who seek its help.

The city expects to save about $3 million. Mayor Rahm Emanuel says it's not about the money, but more about efficiency with therapists able to spend more time with clients.

RAHM EMANUEL: I want people to remember, I take the issue of providing benefits and care to those who need mental health benefits seriously. We're not pulling back from service. In fact, we're giving more service to more people and we're adding a new benefit.

CORLEY: The mayor says psychiatric services will now be available at all the city clinics and private clinics will receive a half million dollars in grants to help them pay for psychiatrists.

Sophia Kortchmar is with the group, Mental Health Movement. She says there's no way getting rid of six clinics expands service and the transition is not going smoothly.

SOPHIA KORTCHMAR: We have heard a mountain of evidence - a mountain of evidence - from consumers at these clinics, people who use these services, from therapists, from doctors, from allied organizations all across the city that say no, the transition plan is not working. People are falling through the cracks.

CORLEY: Kortchmar says some patients were hospitalized after the city closed the two clinics. Chicago's Commissioner of Public Health, Bechara Choucair, tells a much different story. Choucair says the department is monitoring every one of its clients and no one has been overlooked.

BECHARA CHOUCAIR: Now, keep in mind, you know, it's not uncommon for people with serious mental illness to be hospitalized. We continue to monitor the trends and we have not seen any increase.

CORLEY: Chicago's Public Health Department plans to finish its mental health consolidation when it shuts down Woodlawn and three other clinics on Monday.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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