It's lousy to get laid off at Christmas time. But even lousier to hear about it through a cryptic message faxed to your office.
That's how many Chicago Department of Public Health employees learned last week that they were going to be laid off. A faxed table of employee layoffs they'd never heard of went from office to office, saying the department would be eliminating 208 staff members from mental health and public health clinics.
The department's spokeswoman Efrat Stein confirmed the document as real, saying the layoffs are projections based on its current budget numbers but may be subject to change based on union rules. Although Stein said the document is a matter of public record, the layoffs were news to employees. The memo is tucked inside a 101-page document on privatizing neighborhood health clinics, a reply to a question asked by 34th Ward Alderman Carrie Austin during a budget hearing.
The layoffs come after the mayor and Chicago City Council decided that half the city's mental health clinics will be closed. During the budget process, department head Dr. Bechara Couchair insisted that these cuts will actually improve services. Some employees hoped that his comments meant that while clinics would be closed, staff would remain, so that each clinic could have a full staff, rather than the skeleton crew they've been working with in the past few years.
But it doesn't look that way. In fact, 53 people will be laid off by the end of the year, the document shows. In addition to the closed clinics, the city is firing another three center directors, meaning that during the transition and operation of the remaining clinics, not one will have a full-time director.
2012 doesn't look much better. "By March," the document states, 31 more mental health staff will be laid off, including 19 clinical therapists, 8 social work assistants,and 4 behavioral health assistants.
And, by June, 124 more neighborhood health center workers will be given a pink-slip as well.
But employees aren't just worried about their jobs. They're worried about their patients. According to the same document, in 2012, each psychiatrist at the city mental health centers will have up to 650 patients.
"If this is a real document, it completely gives the lie to any assertion that mental health consolidations will improve efficiency," said one employee of the mental health clinics, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the fear of retribution. "If three center directors and some other downtown positions are gone by the end of this month, how could the transition possibly be handled well? And how could three center directors possibly administer 12 clinics well in the time frame leading up to the announced transition?"
Stein continued to assert that the closings and layoffs would lead to better services for Chicago's mentally ill. Couchair wasn't available to speak on the matter.
"By consolidating our centers from 12 to six, we will serve all 3,000 of our current uninsured patients and also have the capacity to serve 1,000 of our 2,100 Medicaid patients," said Stein, in an email. "We will increase psychiatry services that will lead to improved efficiency at our sites."
How will fewer staff and clinics lead to increased services? Stein didn't say. But she did insist twice that services would be increased.
Stein noted that the city isn't the only entity that provides mental health services in Chicago--that there are more than 70 providers in the city, and that the consolidations provide a "long-term sustainable solution for our city."
"We have 100 percent support from the community mental health centers that are ready to increase capacity and work closely with us to ensure that there is no lapse in care for our patients," she said.
Then yesterday, the city released a Request for Proposals, asking for bidders "to increase adult psychiatry services in Chicago" that have "experience in providing quality and cost effective Mental Health Services to uninsured and underinsured individuals in Chicago."
Not long ago, I was at a rally outside the University Club in downtown Chicago where a group of citizens gathered to try to get answers from the mayor about whether or not the city's clinics would be privatized. After standing there for several hours, they never got answers. I guess we have them now.
© Community Renewal Society 2011