We're in an era of "doing more with less," it seems. I hear this phrase, in one form or another, come out of politicians' mouths at all levels of government--beginning with President Barack Obama and trickling down to even our local officials. It's not surprising that they want to spin cuts to public services in the best possible light. But why does the phrase, "You can't polish a turd," keep coming to my mind?
Chicago Department of Public Health officials recently presented their new plan to cut city mental health services to the Chicago City Council. Health Commissioner Bechara Choucair insisted that the mayor's plan to close half the city's clinics and fully fund only two of the remaining six clinics will actually improve services for residents.
Here's the account from Fran Spielman of the Chicago Sun-Times:
Over and over, Choucair insisted that the cuts were carefully considered and that mental health patients would be better served at lower cost to Chicago taxpayers.
“I’m confident we’re enhancing services,” the commissioner said.
In other words, we're doing more with less.
In times in which every budget--federal, state, county, municipal--looks like a winter coat three sizes too small to cover our growing behinds, "doing more with less" is just starting to get on my nerves. We're shutting down half the places where the severely mentally ill can find treatment and not even giving enough money to run the few places left. And we're going to improve services? How does that work exactly? Well, we're doing more with less.
Not to mention that the numbers keep changing. In Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposed budget, the pledge was to provide mental health services for 990 uninsured patients. Now, according to Choucair's testimony, 3,000 uninsured patients and 1,000 insured patients will be served. With only six clinics open, that means each clinic would be seeing, on average, 667 patients. Choucair's plan also includes laying off 53 health department workers, when every clinic already has fewer staff than it did a few years ago.
One clinic, according to a health department employee, had seven clinicians and two psychiatrists in 2008. Two clinicians were laid off, and another two retired and were never replaced. One of the psychiatrists, who was only working half time anyway, retired and was also not replaced. The other psychiatrist has picked up less than half of her work because she has to help at other clinics as well. Now more people will be laid off, the clinic will be closed and merged with another, making patients travel farther, and magically they'll be serving patients better?
Emanuel is quick to say that the city budget reflects our priorities, and his priority is a balanced budget. I think most Chicago citizens would agree balancing the budget is an important goal. But what no one's willing to say is that what we don't fund reflects what we don't see as a priority. Instead, we're told we're just "doing more with less."
Just once, I'd love to see an elected official or department head say, "We've decided that this is not as important to us as other issues, and the funding reflects that. We will not be doing as much as we have in the past because there's a limited amount of money, and at times of limited cash, we have to prioritize what we're going to spend it on." Is any city official prepared to say that mental health services for people on the margins of society--or homeless services, police presence, library services, or any other item on the chopping block--is just not a priority right now?
Clearly, that's asking a lot of people whose job it is to be re-elected. But I think people are getting tired of being told we're doing more with less. If we all have to do with less, perhaps it'd be easier for everyone if we just said that. Maybe then we could have a real discussion about our priorities.
Photo credit: Joel Bez
© Community Renewal Society 2011