News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

Rahm still hasn't told the public why he closed mental health clinics

A City Council hearing on the clinic closings is canceled almost as soon as it's announced.



It's been more than two years since Mayor Rahm Emanuel ignited protests around the city by closing six mental health clinics in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods.

But if he has any second thoughts about his cuts, he sure isn't showing it.

On the contrary, if last week's brouhaha over City Council hearings on the clinics is any indication, the mayor is still reluctant to even discuss the matter.

So I'll be the one to remind you that in the fall of 2011 he proposed closing six of the city's 12 mental health clinics because—well, he didn't really say.

He didn't hold any hearings before he proposed the closures. He didn't initiate a study or put together a task force.

He certainly didn't talk to any mental health patients who would be affected by the cuts.

When protests erupted, his aides claimed the closings would save money—though only about $2.2 million in an overall budget of $8 billion, and even that figure is disputed.

Emanuel's aides also argued that the poor would be better off going to private clinics, though it wasn't clear how many were open in those neighborhoods—like Woodlawn and Back of the Yards—where the public facilities were shuttered.

I suspect that this is one of those infamous half-baked ideas in which the mayor, looking for easy ways to prove he's a tougher budget cutter than Mayor Daley, goes after the so-called low-hanging fruit.

And let's face it: people who depend on public mental health clinics—because they're too broke to pay for private service—aren't exactly movers and shakers in this city.

They didn't even get help from the usually outspoken members of the council's progressive caucus. That's because the clinic closings came as the mayor's allies were redrawing ward maps, and even the boldest of aldermen were cautious about taking on the mayor when he was literally shaping their futures.

To its everlasting shame, the council unanimously approved the clinic closings along with the rest of the mayor's first budget. And in the spring of 2012, the mayor locked up the six clinics for good.

But he underestimated the push back. Leading the way was a coalition of activists and mental health patients who took to the streets, especially in protests outside the shuttered Woodlawn clinic.

They pressed 12th Ward alderman George Cardenas, chairman of the council's health committee, to hold hearings.

One day that spring, two activists happened to bump into Cardenas in a coffee shop in Pilsen. They basically asked him: Dude, how come you won't hold any hearings?

To its everlasting shame, the City Council unanimously approved the mental health clinic closings along with the rest of the mayor's first budget.

His response is a matter of dispute. According to one of the activists, Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, Cardenas said the mayor's office told him not to hold the hearings.

The other activist, Martin Macias, recalls Cardenas saying he hadn't been able to get in touch with the mayor's office.

Apparently, not everyone in City Hall had heard of that invention called the telephone.

Cardenas didn't respond to a request for comment, so I don't know how he remembers the exchange. But whatever his reason, Cardenas didn't hold a hearing on the clinics.

The activists didn't give up. Over the last two years, they've continued to fight.

In April they got a small boost. Aldermen Robert Fioretti, Rick Munoz, and Scott Waguespack introduced a resolution urging Cardenas to "expeditiously convene public hearings" on the clinic closings.

The aldermen held a press conference at which Waguespack did what the mayor should have: he apologized for the clinic closings.

"We made a big mistake by allowing the mayor's budget to set aside mental health clinics as a priority," Waguespack said.

Yet their resolution was promptly buried in—where else?—the health committee.

Then, out of nowhere, on July 17 Cardenas's office sent out an agenda—signed by the alderman—stating that on July 21 his committee would hold a hearing on the clinics.

Activists were ecstatic. "News of the hearing was so important to so many people," says N'Dana Carter of the Mental Health Movement, a grassroots group. "It would be an opportunity to finally tell what is going on and how these closings have devastated so many people."

Carter and her allies began calling patients around the city, asking them to come to the hearing to testify. Most had been forced either to go to clinics well outside their neighborhoods or to switch to counselors who didn't know their histories. In some cases, they'd gone without therapy altogether.

The activists also wanted to hear health department officials explain why they'd reduced access to mental health care in high-crime neighborhoods where more is needed.

But wait! No sooner had Cardenas's office announced that it would hold the hearing than it announced there was no hearing after all.

"Just like that, they told us the hearing was off," Carter says.

Mental health activists tell me they've heard that an aide to Cardenas made a mistake. The aide had apparently seen the resolution calling for hearings and assumed that Cardenas wanted it on the agenda.

According to this account, when mayoral aides saw the agenda, they called Cardenas and reamed him out.

A spokesman for the mayor had a different story. He said Cardenas postponed the hearing because there was another item on the agenda and "he wanted to ensure mental health has its own separate hearing."

Unfortunately for the mayor, the cat was out of the bag, as reporters began calling to ask why he'd called off the meetings.

Still, the mayor's office clearly decided that holding the hearing would be an even worse public relations problem.

Last week Cardenas went on WBEZ to say he would hold a hearing sometime in late July or August. Since July is now gone, I guess that means he's holding it in August.

That ought to give the mayor enough time to round up a few doctors willing to testify that cutting mental health service is actually good for poor patients. Maybe Dr. Nick from The Simpsons is available.

If it's half as entertaining as I'm guessing, the mayor could charge admission and use the proceeds to reopen a few clinics, which he never should have closed in the first place.

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