Will County public health programs in jeopardy

By LAUREN LEONE–CROSS

Grappling with severe depression, Robert Talkie said he first walked into the Will County Health Department 15 years ago in need of mental health services.

On Monday, he spoke out against the May 27 suspension of those state-funded programs during a news conference in Joliet that included elected officials, mental health advocates and county employees.

Talkie urged Illinois lawmakers to pass a budget, and for Will County officials to come up with a temporary solution to possibly prevent some of the slated 53 layoffs. More than 52,000 clients are estimated to be affected by program suspensions.

Talkie is among the nearly 1,700 people who annually receive adult psychiatric services or outpatient mental health services through the local agency.

“If not for the services I received there, I would not, could not, be here talking with you,” Talkie said. “I pray that this good work continues.”

Illinois owes the Will County Health Department just over $2.1 million for work performed under contracts dating back to July 2015. To make up the shortfall, the department’s Board of Health voted to suspend nine programs, including its adult psychiatric services.

Will County Board members Bob Howard, D-Beecher, and Lauren Staley-Ferry, D-Joliet, said county officials are eyeing possible solutions – such as a temporary loan to the health department through the county’s fiscal year, which ends Nov. 30.

But not all programs can be funded. Susan Olenek, executive director of the health department, is scheduled to provide recommendations at 10 a.m. Thursday at the County Board’s Executive Committee meeting.

On the chopping block are programs such as family case management; vision and hearing testing for schoolchildren; HIV counseling, prevention and testing; and tobacco control and education.

Which programs to save and which to put to the wayside has yet to be determined. Many factors – including number of clients served and program costs – will be considered, county officials have said.

Behavioral health services – including crisis response, psychiatric medicines, capitated care, juvenile justice, child and adolescent services and adult psychiatric services – also may be cut. Those six programs cost nearly $1.2 million yearly to run, according to health department documents.

At a $26,000 annual cost, the health department also provided nearly 32,000 vision and hearing tests to 164 area schools last year.

The lack of funding for mental health services in the community is only shifting costs elsewhere – including to the Will County Jail and hospital emergency rooms, said Teena Mackey, president for NAMI Will-Grundy, a mental health advocacy group.

“This is a signal that the stigma of mental health is still so pervasive … that [Illinois] says it needs to cut funding, so we cut here,” Mackey said. “I don’t think I’m being melodramatic here when I say this, but crimes, suicides will increase.”

The local agency’s behavioral health division receives the majority of inpatient psychiatric discharge referrals from area hospitals and state-operated psychiatric hospitals for Will County residents.

The agency’s HIV prevention and education program is critical not for only clients, but the community, Sandra Wetstein, medical case manager at Agape Mission, said at Monday’s news conference.

“There are also some major, major pieces to HIV prevention. Somebody doesn’t just walk in to the department … and get a test and leave,” Wetstein said. “There’s counseling involved. There’s education involved.”

The Health Department is the only agency in Will County that conducts HIV surveillance with an annual caseload of 200, according to an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1028 news release. In 2015, Will County had 30 new HIV diagnoses – 10 of which had already progressed to AIDS.

The agency’s tobacco control and prevention program is also at risk, said David Delrose, president of AFSCME Local 1028. Without the program, there will be no enforcement of the Smoke Free Illinois law in Will County, he said.

State Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, urged the Illinois House to pass Senate Bill 2047, of which he is a co-sponsor and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton is the chief sponsor .

The bill provides $441 million for human service programs not covered under consent decrees. Some of that would fund agency programs, he said.

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