First, the good news: there’s going to be a hearing.
Two years after Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed six of the city’s 12 public mental health clinics as part of a cost-cutting move, the Chicago City Council Committee on Health and Environmental Protection is scheduled on Tuesday to hold a hearing on the topic.
What’s on the agenda? Well, that’s hard to say. The only public announcement of the hearing is a one-line agenda saying the meeting is a “subject matter hearing on Mental Health Clinics”.
In fact, it’s something of a minor miracle the hearing is even being held at all. If you remember, way back in 2012 the Mayor unilaterally decided to shut down six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics without any hearings, studies or even talking to any mental health patients who would be affected by the cuts.
Since that decision, the Mayor’s office and the Council’s Health and Environmental Protection Committee chair, Ald. George Cardenas (12), have broken their backs to avoid offering any explanations or even publicly addressing the move. It’s almost as if the city gutted a critical public service necessary for the health of its citizens and then pretended it never happened.
In fact, the city’s response to public outcry on the matter has been a textbook case of obfuscation, denial, stonewalling and an utter lack of transparency.
First, there was the inflated estimates of how much the city would save. In 2011, before the closings, the estimate was $3 million in budget savings. Later, the figure was reduced without explanation to $2.2 million—or $1.7 million after payments to private providers were factored in.
Before the clinics were closed, the city’s Commissioner of Public Health, Dr. Bechara Choucair, ducked out of a 2011 community town hall meeting on the matter just hours before he was scheduled to appear.
After the cuts were made and clinics closed, in 2012 Cardenas promised there would be Council hearings on the matter right away. Then, for years Cardenas waffled on the matter, promising hearings were coming without ever scheduling any.
In 2012, when citizens, patients and advocates for mental health services decided to protest the Mayor’s move, Chicago police sent in undercover agents to spy on protesters rallying against the closures.
Earlier this year, some of Cardenas’s fellow alderman apologized for voting for the 2012 city budget that included the clinic closures. In April, Ald. Waguespack (32), Ald. Fiorreti (2) and Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22) sponsored a resolution calling for hearings on the matter, which was promptly ignored by Cardenas’s committee.
In July, Cardenas finally called for a hearing, only to cancel it hours later.
Throughout, Mayor Emanuel has steadfastly refused to address the matter, repeatedly failing to meet with advocates calling for the reopening of the clinic.
Which would all be dismissed by some as just another example of how Chicago is run under the Emanuel administration, if it wasn't for the simple fact that thousands of Chicagoans are denied critical mental health services they need every day as a result of the city’s decisions.
According to some estimates, 5,000 people were being treated in the city mental health system before the closures, with just over 2,000 people afterward. According to a 2012 study by AFSCME, the city let go of 19 of its 41 licensed mental health therapists as part of the move. As well, thousands of mental health patients are believed to have been “disappeared” out of the system as a result, despite city claims of a successful transition.
All of this is amid concern that the city’s real agenda includes privatization of mental health services.
What’s clear is that whatever Mayor Emanuel and his City Council allies believe is the future of mental health services in Chicago—and there’s every reason to believe they don’t see a future at all—the citizens of Chicago deserve more than a closed door and the back of a hand when it comes to hearing their elected officials explain what they’ve done and why.
Maybe today’s hearing will be the moment when the City finally answers for the decisions it made affecting thousands of Chicagoans lives.
If so, it would be a welcome change from the past.