Understaffed Health Department aims to expand mental health services

CHICAGO The Chicago Department of Public Health is facing hundreds of vacancies and lost funding due to COVID-19, but the mayor’s proposed 2024 budget is setting the stage to expand services mental health department.

The agency has 493 vacancies across all departments, representing about 42% of the agency’s positions, acting Commissioner Fikirte Wagaw told workers during the department’s budget hearing Thursday.

At the same time, next year’s total budget is 888 million USD, down nearly 10% compared to last year. The city is investing another $6.5 million into the department from state and local tax dollars, but the health budget will still decrease by $96 million as COVID-related grants dry up.

Alderpeople asked Wagaw about the department’s plans to fill those gaps and reduce reliance on grants during the hourlong hearing, where she also shared details about a proposal to expand services mental health services and other departmental priorities.

Wagaw didn’t have answers to many questions, but she promised to follow up with Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd), chair of the City Council’s Health and Human Relations Committee.

Wagaw was appointed to the position after Mayor Brandon Johnson fired former Commissioner Allison Arwady in August. She previously served as the department’s first deputy commissioner.

Wagaw said filling vacancies in the Department of Public Health is “a long-standing problem.” Even before the pandemic, she said, the department had 150-200 unfilled positions.

Wagaw said the Department has sought to increase recruitment by promoting job openings among current employees and within their professional networks. Clinicians are also asked to record social media videos talking about their work and why they love it to attract new applicants.

For positions that are harder to fill, the health department has allowed them to stay open for longer periods of time, giving people more opportunities to apply, Wagaw said.

“We are on track to hire the largest number of people we have ever hired in a year,” Wagaw said. “As of early October, we have recruited 126 people and we will definitely recruit more.”

Block Club’s Quinn Myers explains how to fund Mayor Johnson’s proposed budget:

Wagaw also addressed the loss of funding as federal money dried up during the pandemic, saying the majority of any health department’s funding comes from grants.

In Johnson’s proposed budget, 89 percent of the Department’s funding comes from grants, which accounted for 91 percent of last year’s budget.

“Most health departments at the local and state level are funded primarily through grants, which is not a good model,” Wagaw said. “I don’t know the answer going forward, but we are certainly committed to working with this agency, the mayor’s office and other partners to think about how we fund public health.”

Arwady warned last year when he heard that a large amount of federal emergency dollars for the pandemic would expire in 2023-2024, creating a long-term funding dilemma.

Arwady told Crains last year that the influx of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding has allowed the public health department to increase staffing by about 50% and develop infrastructure to support initiatives. ​public health. Without funding, those resources may be at risk.

Arwady declined an interview with Block Club.

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These challenges come as the Department of Public Health will be tasked with implementing Johnson’s Non-Traumatic Treatment order, which aims to create a network of experts to respond to medical emergencies. mental health without armed police and eventually reopened the city’s 14 mental health clinics.

Johnson’s proposed public health department budget allocates $4.8 million to expand mental health services by opening two additional mental health clinics in addition to the city’s existing clinics. The budget proposes adding 21 additional mental health staff for a total of 53, including psychiatric nurses, clinical therapists and case managers.

Alderpeople also asked about the public health department’s role in responding to the migrant crisis, which Wagaw said includes coordinating with the Cook County Health Department, local hospitals and medical centers. meets federal standards.

Wagaw also shared how the department will continue to work to address the opioid crisis in Chicago.

Wagaw said Chicago will receive $16 million in opioid payments that the department will use to increase distribution of life-saving Narcan kits, which are already being distributed in public libraries.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the Budget and Government Operations Committee, said he supports the funding, noting that more Chicagoans die from opioid overdoses than from homicide.

“We need to do more in this area,” Ervin said.

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