Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Health of the mental health system

By Hilary Russell
After the legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability recommended last week to close Howe Developmental Center in Tinley Park, Gov. Pat Quinn decided this week to conduct his own investigation to determine if the facility should be closed. The committee also recommended closing Tinley Park Mental Health Center, although the governor has not announced if he will conduct an investigation of that facility.

In a statement, Quinn’s office announced the appointment of Anne Shannon to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations made about the Howe Developmental Center that led to the recommendation that it be closed. Shannon is a former president and chief executive officer of a nonprofit organization for people with developmental disabilities.

The goal is to determine if the facility can be remedied to continue operating.

If Howe were to close, members of the American Federation for State, County, and Municipal Employees union would be out of jobs, and patients would be out of their home. Henry Bayer, AFSCME Council 31 executive director, expressed his disapproval of the committee’s decision in a statement.

“At a hastily convened meeting, … nine lawmakers voted to embrace Rod Blagojevich’s scheme to shutter Howe, an essential public health facility that serves individuals with profound developmental disabilities,” Bayer said. “It’s up to Pat Quinn to step in. At stake are the lives of countless individuals with severe mental illnesses and profound developmental disabilities, as well as the jobs of 1,000 dedicated employees.”

An organized group of parents of the residents also opposes the closure. Betty Turturillo, president of Howe Family and Friends, has a 57-year-old daughter who has lived at Howe since 1974. “We feel our loved ones are well taken care of, and many of the people there are older and … are not appropriate for community placement. It’ll be very hard on many of them to be moved, and many of them will not survive the move,” she said. “Howe is not a dumping ground for our relatives.”

Shannon is expected to report her findings to Quinn by the end of June, when a final decision is expected to be made on Howe’s fate.

On the same note, rallies were held in Springfield and Chicago today by advocates for mental health services who believe the only way to preserve and improve the state’s mental health facilities is to raise taxes and invest more money in treatment options. Several state representatives, including Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, and Patricia Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican, were on hand to give their support.

“One thing we must not do in the process of figuring out the budget is to abandon all of you,” Lang said to the crowd. “We must find a way to find the dollars for treatment in local communities because treatment works.”

“We know we can take people out of nursing home settings and put them into a community setting because they will flourish there,” said Bellock. According to Bellock, by moving developmentally disabled and mentally ill patients out of clinical-type settings and into ones that look and feel more like home, they will make progress, or, at least, be happier.

Mental health advocates fear the state’s $12.4 billion projected budget deficit will lead lawmakers to slice treatment options, a similar concern in previous years. “We are already one of the most underfunded community health service states ranked in the country,” said Mark Heyrman, a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School who helped organize the rally. “Now what’s happened is there are more people with serious mental illnesses in the state prison system than in all of the public and private psychiatric hospitals combined.”

The ninth annual Mental Health Rally and Lobby Day held on the steps of the Capitol brought together mental health-related advocacy organizations and those suffering from mental illness to urge the governor to avoid cutting additional programs and to preserve money designed for treatment and facilities.

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