Aldermen moved Wednesday to undo one of the most controversial City Council votes in recent years by endorsing a plan to create a task force to determine whether to reopen the mental-health clinics closed in 2011 under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first budget.The unanimous vote of the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection — which is expected to be approved Jan. 23 by the full City Council — came over the objections of Chicago Department of Public Health Dr. Julie Morita, who accused the aldermen of playing politics.
Attendance: Chairman George Cardenas (12); Pat Dowell (3); Sophia King (4); Leslie Hairston (5); Willie Cochran (20); Scott Waguespack (32); Deb Mell (33); Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35); Emma Mitts (37); John Arena (45); James Cappleman (46); Harry Osterman (48)
Morita, who was not present because she is traveling out of state with her family, sent a letter to be read by Chief Medical Officer Allison Arwady to the committee that expressed her “disappointment” that the hearing was not rescheduled — and urged aldermen to rethink their effort.
“We must be careful not to politicize a taskforce,” Morita wrote. “We must not be handicapped by forcing ill-conceived, political-driven recommendation on the task force before members are even selected.”
Ald. George Cardenas (12) — who is facing four challengers, all of whom are still facing objections to their nominating petitions — said the effort was not designed to “harp on the past, but to look to the future.”
More than seven years after all 50 aldermen went along with Emanuel’s proposal to close six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics, triggering vehement protests and national attention, several aldermen have said they regret that vote — and have been working to reopen the clinics over the administration’s objections.
Ald. Sophia King — who authored the measure (R2018-1398) to create the Public Mental Health Clinic Service Expansion Task Force — said the closures of the mental health clinics had led to “increased 911 calls and jailings.”
“We all know what’s been happening,” said King, who was appointed by Emanuel to the City Council in 2016. “We need to take a hard look at the decisions that were made and decide how to move forward.”
Dr. Arturo Carrillo, the manager of the St. Anthony Hospital Community Wellness Program, told aldermen that his clinic’s wait lists had grown by 80 percent — and would not be reduced by the creation of a task force.
More than 250 privately-run clinics vetted by the federal government provide both primary health care and mental health care to Chicago residents as part of an “ideal” model, Arwady said.
The clinics were on “a path to failure” when they were closed because of 90 percent cut in state funding, Arwady said, calling the clinic’s closures “the right decision.”
“We believe there are ways to strengthen Chicago’s mental health system,” Arwady said. “However, moving the clock back and re-opening stand-alone clinics are not the answer.”
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35) — who became the measure’s 43rd co-sponsor Wednesday — bristled at Arwady’s remarks and Morita’s letter, calling their statements “very aggressive” and said the accusation that aldermen were motivated by politics was not appropriate.
The Collaborative for Community Wellness, led by Carrillo, found that only 59 percent of the agencies identified by city officials as offering mental health services responded to a request for information from the group.
Another 11 percent had a disconnected or not in service phone line, 8 percent were actually duplicate listings, 18 percent did not respond to two voicemail messages and another 4 percent had closed, according to the survey presented to aldermen.
“This shows major, major gaps in service,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “The data does not support your conclusions.”
King said she would urge Morita — or whoever represents the Chicago Department of Public Health — to keep an open mind on the question of whether the clinics need to be reopened.
The task force would include two aldermen from wards which contained one of the six mental health clinics closed in 2012, two representatives of the Chicago Department of Health, two representatives of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31, and two representatives of the Chicago Community Mental Health Board.
The measure requires the Health Committee to hold a public hearing in 45 days — which would be just about the same time aldermen are up for re-election — to allow Chicagoans to weigh in on the need to reopen the clinics. The task force will have 180 days to report its findings to aldermen.