Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=112391
Story Retrieval Date: 5/26/2013 12:25:44 AM CST
Last summer, the Chicago health department made the switch to electronic medical records. Among the benefits: fewer medical errors, easier tracking of patients and a step into the future of health care administration.
The downside: $1.2 million lost in state mental health funding.
The city’s move to electronic medical records required massive retraining of health department officials, about a third of whom had been working for the city before computers became widespread, health department Commissioner Terry Mason said.
“Many people didn’t know how to use a mouse,” Mason said at Wednesday’s board of health meeting.
During the transition, the department billed the state for fewer services as employees got up to speed, a normal process in any new record-keeping system, department spokesman Tim Hadac said.
Because funding from Springfield depends on how many services were provided, the state responded with a $1.2 million cut in funding. The department appealed the decision in writing, and was denied in October.
“We explained to the state that it’s not that we’re serving fewer people; it’s just that the billing was slower,” Hadac said. “They responded by saying, essentially, ‘too bad.’”
Mason said the billing is getting back up to speed, but the department will not see any of that money back.
“When you’re dealing with the state, it doesn’t matter what it costs you; it only matters what they send you,” Mason said.
Four of the city’s 12 mental health clinics will close their doors sometime next month, the result of a $1.2 million loss in state funds, health department officials confirmed Wednesday.
At the first public meeting on the topic, citizens and mental health advocates criticized the transparency and timeline of the closing process, and questioned what it will mean for the more than 6,500 mental health patients under the city’s care.
The four clinics scheduled for a Feb. 1 closing are Beverly-Morgan Park, Woodlawn, Greater Grand/Mid-South and Back of the Yards. All four are underused, health department Commissioner Terry Mason said, and moving the staff to larger facilities will actually improve the quality of care for those patients.
“The No. 1 thing here is to make certain that we have enough people in a place to provide service in the right way,” Mason said at Wednesday’s board of health meeting. “Just to have a place open and have a couple people working there is not, in my mind, the right thing to do."
The North River clinic in North Park was originally slated for closing, but the board is rethinking the move in the face of vocal community support. Voters in the Northwest Side neighborhood approved a referendum in November to raise their property taxes to keep the clinic open, though City Council action is required to enact the proposal.
The closings, provisionally released last week, are the result of a $1.2 million cut in state funding, resulting in 22 layoffs last month. Those cuts brought the total number of layoffs and unfilled vacancies to 40 this year spreading the department's 114 employees – the equivalent of six or seven clinical staffs – across 12 clinics, health officials said.
“We can keep the doors open and the lights on and keep bleeding money to do that, but that just doesn’t make sense,” health department spokesman Tim Hadac said. “We say it’s better to service people the right way from fewer facilities than the wrong way from too many.”
But how the move will affect patients under the city’s care is still unclear.
Patients can go to any of the eight remaining clinics, but transportation costs and severe mental illness often make that difficult, said Mike Snedeker, coordinator of the Coalition to Save our Mental Health Clinics, which is fighting to keep the North River clinic open.
For many of the clinic’s 450 patients, the six-mile trip to the Northtown/Rogers Park clinic, the next closest mental health center, is all but impossible, Snedeker said.
“It would take them two and a half hours to get there,” he said after the meeting. “We’re talking about hundreds of severely mentally ill people with no service at all.”
In addition, the closing of the Woodlawn clinic means there is no mental health clinic in the corridor from Bronzeville to Jackson Park on the city's southeast side. The nearest clinic is Englewood, at West 63rd Street and South Lowe Avenue.
“Where are those people supposed to go?” said Badonna Reingold, vice chairwoman of the Community Mental Health Board, an advisory board for the city’s mental health services. “This move is lethal to them.”
Reingold said she understands the financial squeeze at the city and state level. But she said the health department could be doing more to get its clinics their share of the pie.
“[The board] has to appeal to the city in a stronger way, and the city has to start pushing its weight around in Springfield,” she said. “There are things worth spending money on besides the Olympics."