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State needs to increase funding to treat mental illness

Sunday, May 22, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times

Recent headlines about the dire need for increased state funding for education and transportation in the Chicago area show that decisions made in Springfield have a tremendous impact on Cook County communities. But there's another area in which state policy choices are quietly placing a growing strain on both Cook County taxpayers and the services they support: public mental health care. Mental health is a state, not county, responsibility.

Most individuals with mental illness can be treated in outpatient community-based settings. But those experiencing acute episodes -- or those with severe, chronic illness who present a danger to themselves and others -- often require treatment in an inpatient setting. In the Chicago area, the state operates three inpatient mental health centers to serve them: Read Mental Health Center on the Northwest Side; Madden in west suburban Maywood, and south suburban Tinley Park.

Staffed by specially trained, skilled and experienced professionals and paraprofessionals, these facilities provide safe and secure treatment settings as well as links to community outpatient resources once patients can be stabilized.

Today, however, these facilities and their capacity to serve Cook County residents are in danger. The Illinois Department of Human Services has closed 88 beds and cut more than 100 staff at the Tinley Park and Read centers in recent days. Even a tentative increase of 51 beds at the Madden facility would not offset these cuts, resulting in a net loss of 32 inpatient beds, or 7 percent of our region's capacity.

The real impact of this planned downsizing would be even worse than it looks. Because each bed is used by an average of 13.6 patients per year, the cuts would effectively reduce treatment options for an annual total of more than 400 patients with severe mental illnesses.

Worse, the state has new admission rules that would bar Chicago residents from receiving care at Tinley or Read. As a result, city dwellers from Rogers Park on the Far North Side to Roseland on the South Side would be forced to make the trek to Maywood to receive treatment. This flies in the face of the state's responsibility and what mental health advocates tell us about the importance of providing care in our communities and close to the support of family and friends.

These three missteps -- bed closures, staff cuts and admissions changes -- add up to one giant leap in the wrong direction for public health policy. Ample evidence suggests the state should increase access to and investment in mental health care, not slash it. Last year, the number of patients seeking treatment at Tinley, Read and Madden was up by more than 500 over 2003.

Those patients may be our neighbors, family members, co-workers and friends. They may be referred to a public mental health facility when a community care provider recognizes they need acute care, or by a private hospital when their insurance coverage runs out. They may be among the tens of thousands of Cook County residents who have no health insurance at all.

The state wants to sell the Tinley Park land to balance the budget. This action is not in the state's best interest. Cook County can't accept the state's responsibility and fund local mental health care for our citizens.

Turning back these cuts is not just a matter of doing what's right; it's also smart public policy for county taxpayers. After all, when those who need hospitalization can't find a bed, they usually go without care until they end up in the wrong place: one of our three county hospitals, or worse, Cook County Jail.

Larry Suffredin is a Cook County Commissioner who represents the 13th District.

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