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Task force agrees area needs mental health facility

Sunday, April 10, 2005
Daily Southtown

THE ISSUE: A state-appointed panel says a public mental health facility should remain in the south suburbs.
WE SAY: The Blagojevich administration should abide by this finding for the well-being of patients in the area.

The south suburbs should not be left without an adequate state mental health hospital.

We've been saying that for quite some time, and last week a state task force came to the same conclusion.

The task force, formed to research the issue for Gov. Rod Blagojevich, said that the state should either keep the Tinley Park Mental Health Center open — either in its current form or in a smaller fashion — or a new facility should be established in the area. If the latter option is taken, the current facility should not close until the new one opens, the task force said.

The Tinley Park Mental Health Center, located near 183rd and Harlem Avenue, has become a political football in recent months. Last year, Blagojevich suggested it be closed to help balance the budget. That idea was met with howls — and rightly so — by mental health care advocates and families of patients who receive care at the facility. Those groups argued that the center's patients would have to travel long distances to hospitals far from the Southland to get the treatment now provided to them in Tinley Park. The objections prompted the state Department of Human Services to form the task force, which has met five times since September to discuss the health center and other mental health issues.

In a finding that should have been overwhelmingly obvious to the Blagojevich administration, the task force said many patients rely on the health center, especially those with serious illnesses and no insurance who cannot afford a private hospital.

The state's mental health director had told the task force that the mental health center's $20.4 million budget for 2006 could be used for other forms of care for patients if the health center were shut down. But knowing how the state juggles budget numbers, what guarantee would there be that all of that money would be used for mental health care specifically for the patients who had relied on the Tinley Park center? And would an amount equal to or greater than $20.4 million be allocated again the following year and the years after that?

We questioned the Blagojevich administration's commitment to health care when his 2006 budget was announced earlier this year and it contained $3.6 million less for the mental health center than the year before, a cut that will mean 58 fewer employees and 33 fewer beds at the facility. That cut is unreasonable, and the long-range plan to shut the facility down is irresponsible.

The task force is to be commended for recognizing that the best solution is to keep a public mental health facility open in the south suburbs. The Blagojevich administration not only should follow the recommendation of this finding, but it should ensure that the facility is always properly funded. It's an insult to mental health patients and their families that a much-needed health facility is treated by some state officials as nothing more than an expendable budget item.



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