Supporters of the Community Mental Health Council, Inc. (CMHC) gathered Thursday afternoon at WVON-AM studios, 1000 E. 87th St. to voice their concerns over the 37-year-old non-profit organization’s closing.
Located at 8704 S. Constance Ave., CMHC closed its doors Aug. 1 after the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) elected not to bestow the center a contract for fiscal year 2013.
In mid- June, DHS informed CMHC that it would not be retaining the mental health center as a “vendor” after June 30.
Thursday’s town hall gave community members a chance to express their feelings about CMHC’s closing.
Sen. Donne Trotter (D-17) and Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-3) both convened over the two hour meeting. Dr. Carl C. Bell, M.D., CMHC’s president and CEO was not in attendance for the meeting but issued a statement in his absence.
Bell said he believes shuttering CMHC was the “wrong decision based on many misunderstandings” and the closing “could have been handled better.”
“I say that because the CMHC team had worked closely for 37 years; and that team has served thousands of people over the years,” the doctor’s statement read. “Whole communities have been helped by CMHC. We accomplished that by using the State of Illinois’ funds and significant funds of our own. We have been there for the State, the elected officials, and the folks who vote for them.”
Michael Holmes, associate director of DHS presented a statement and timeline explaining the agency’s decision to close CMHC.
“Over the past several years, the Department of Human Services (DHS) Division of Mental Health has advanced millions of dollars to Community Mental Health Council (CMHC) in an effort to ensure continuity of care for consumers and to give the company an opportunity to improve its fiscal situation. In addition, DHS provided more than two years of educational assistance regarding financial and program reporting requirements. To date, CMHC has made little effort to repay the state. CMHC experienced serious fiscal mismanagement and eventual insolvency for many years –they consistently and knowingly outspent their resources, did not make payroll for many months, cancelled health insurance for employees and their families, and were the subject of mounting complaints to both the federal and Illinois Departments of Labor. Therefore, DHS was unable to renew CMHC’s contract for fiscal year 2013.”
Bell has continued to serve patients on a volunteer basis since CMHC closed its doors. He has treated 419 patients from July 1 to now. When DHS notified CMHC it would not be renewing its contract, Bell had 1,000 patients scheduled through Oct. 12. Bell currently has about 99 patients scheduled.
“We did the best we could with no support despite our asking for help to transition patients that were left hanging,” Bell said.
Sen. Trotter had been working to secure bridge money to help CMHC receive a proper closing, but he told the Chicago Citizen that is no longer his focus.
“Bridge money is a stop gap approach,” Trotter said. “…This hearing and my intent along with my fellow members is to get funding for fiscal year 13 and then look what we are going to do going forward.”
Sen. Hunter called the town hall an opportunity to “hear from the community.” She said the state did not make the legislature fully aware of CMHC’s situation.
“This is the first time Sen. Trotter and I heard all the back and forth between the state and the Community Mental Health Center,” Hunter told the Chicago Citizen. “Dr. Bell made some of us aware that he was having problems but to what extent I did not know.”
CMHC is not located in Hunter’s legislative district, however she became involved because she is chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
“Too many agencies are being closed down in the African American community and has to stop,” Hunter said.
Margaret Davis, a director at the Healthcare Consortium of Illinois worked with Bell at the CMCH and said he and his staff had a special affinity to issues that plague the African American community such as violence, post-traumatic stress, sexual abuse and other issues.
“Carl understood it and he had solutions to the problems,” Davis said.
Davis like many of the other town hall attendees wants CMHC reopened and charged that the community came together to have their voices heard.
“We know how to fight,” Davis said. “All we have to do is establish a team of people who can fight for the rights of our people.”
Rep. Monique Davis (D-27) was not in attendance for the town hall but she also issued a statement throwing her support behind CMHC.
“I support that center because it provides a needed service in the African American community not only the African American services but senior services as well,” Rep. Davis said. “The state cannot continue to use the excuse of alleged improprieties as the reason for closure. It’s time for the Black community to get damn mad.”
Bell is calling for an investigation into the center’s closing. “We are not done with this yet,” Bell said. I am requesting a formal investigation into what has happened to us and others like us so that Illinois can serve its most vulnerable citizens.”
By Thelma Sardin