Following the abrupt news last month that Community Counseling Centers of Chicago (C4) expects to shut down at the end of May, clients and staff from the major mental health service provider want answers about the organization's imminent closure.
C4 clients, staffers and their supporters from Arise Chicago, SEIU* Local 73 and other groups rallied Tuesday afternoon outside C4's facility at 4740 N. Clark St. They were there to demand "four C's for C4: compensation, clients' rights, communication and commitment," explained C4 staff therapist Max Beshers.
C4 -- which serves more than 10,000 patients annually and has some 300 employees -- expects to close May 31 as a result of problems stemming from a new billing and electronic health records system required as part of the Affordable Care Act, according to C4 President and CEO Eileen Durkin.
C4 employees, organizing as the C4 Workers' Committee, say they have been kept in the dark about the institution's problems.
"We, as workers, were never told this was happening, so there was no way for us to know or prepare. We were just given short notice that C4 was going to be closing," said C4 staff therapist Cynthia Cruz. "We don't have any type of transition plan yet. We don't know what to tell our clients, and our clients also have a right to know what's happening for them next."
Cruz added that workers have been paid late. As of April 17, "the whole agency missed payroll," she explained. C4 staffers also said their health care coverage was terminated on May 1.
If C4 does close, the process of referring patients to other providers could prove to be challenging as mental health care services are already in short supply in the city, according to those at Tuesday's rally. The city of Chicago, for example, shut down six of its 12 public mental health clinics back in 2012.
"The closing of C4 clinics provides yet another reason why Chicago needs a public mental health services safety net," said N'Dana Carter with the Mental Health Movement. "When six city mental health clinics were closed in 2012 we were told that the private mental health providers would be able to care for the thousands of clients that the city dumped. But again and again these private providers, struggling with serious funding problems, have closed, further reducing the options for care in Chicago. The other important message is that state funding cuts are having a big impact, and if Gov. Rauner pushes through more cuts to mental health funding, then the impact on people's lives and on our neighborhoods will be far worse than anything we've seen so far."
Therese Burton is a C4 client of 24 years and mother of three, whose children have also received supports from the organization. She is not sure where she will seek care if C4 closes at the end of the month.
"C4 is integral to this society, to this community," she said. "And without C4, parents like me won't have the tools necessary to help them with parenting [or a] medical crisis."
Here's more Burton and Carter plus comments from C4 staff therapist Maya Joseph-Brooks:
After Tuesday's rally, C4 workers and clients discussed their concerns with Durkin and delivered a letter with their demands.
Specifically, C4 employees are demanding "30 days severance pay, full compensation for unused paid time off days and unused vacation days, and immediate reinstatement and extension of health care coverage" for all workers.
Additionally, C4 staffers want a thorough explanation as to what caused the organization's demise. They are also calling for a detailed transition plan for clients and employees plus a timeline for the closures at each of C4's five locations, among other demands.
Employees requested that C4 leaders provide a full response and written commitment concerning their demands before Thursday at 5:23 p.m., which marks "exactly two weeks from when we learned that C4 would be closing its doors," reads the letter from the C4 Workers' Committee.
Speaking to employees and clients, Durkin acknowledged the concerns raised by the group and said C4 leadership will provide a response, including a detailed transition plan for workers and clients, by the requested deadline.
"I hear you," she said to the group. "The biggest thing the board is working on is getting that pay, and getting the money in here to make sure people get paid, their benefits are paid."
C4 leaders, Durkin added, are doing everything they can to prevent the loss of mental health services and other supports provided by the organization.
"We'd like to make sure that we are here, and we're working really hard right now behind the scenes to do that," she said. "Our other plan is, if we can't do that, then we will ensure that consumers and staff are transferred safely."
As for the cause of C4's looming shutdown, Durkin explained that after the new billing and electronic records system was implemented in October, the institution was unable to "push a bill out the door for six weeks."
That was problematic, Durkin said, as C4 did not have a savings account to tap in the meantime.
"Then we get bills out the door. We think we're in good shape. We get rejections back. Then you have to start reworking those, so you start to build up your payables," she explained. "It's not that we were in trouble [financially], it's just that we lived without a savings account. So when you run into a challenge, then you don't have any money ... to meet that challenge."
Durkin agreed with workers that C4 officials should have communicated better with staff about the situation.
"It was all hands on deck trying to figure out how to get this system working, and then regular communication just became fragmented, and we should have done a better job with that," she said. "There's just no way around it -- we should have done a better job to say, 'This is how we're struggling.'"
When pressed by reporters about the organization's chances of staying open, Durkin said, "We're working feverishly."
"And I don't want to give out any false hope, but we're working really hard to see ... what we can do," she said. "By May the 7th at 5:23 [p.m.], we're going to let you know what's going on."
*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.