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Local News

No easy answer to Will County Health Department program cuts, layoffs

The Will County Health Department is seen Dec. 22, 2015, in Joliet. The department is facing significant layoffs and program suspensions in the face of the state budget impasse.
The Will County Health Department is seen Dec. 22, 2015, in Joliet. The department is facing significant layoffs and program suspensions in the face of the state budget impasse.

JOLIET – The Will County Health Department’s executive director was hesitant Thursday to accept a one-time cash influx from the county in the face of layoffs and program cuts, saying it’s using a Band-Aid to fix a much bigger problem.

“If the County Board wants to assist and provide funding for us, that’s wonderful,” Susan Olenek, the agency’s executive director, told members of the Will County Public Health and Safety Committee.

“However, if it were to be earmarked for something like behavioral health, we would like, if possible, a commitment from the board moving forward to continue to sustain that. … Otherwise we’re just prolonging the agony here.”

The health department – owed $2.1 million from Illinois for work performed under contracts – announced last month it was laying off 53 employees. The agency is also suspending nine programs, including its adult psychiatric services.

Those layoffs will be effective May 27.

In the meantime, as part of their union contract, employees slated for layoffs have “bumping rights,” in which a worker with more seniority can fill an open position or position filled by a person with less seniority.

Olenek said this would mark the “fifth bumping process” in five years for the department, including once in 2011 and 2012, and twice in 2015.

“Our agency has been shrinking. I can’t tell you how disruptive and how difficult and how counterproductive all of that is,” Olenek said to the committee. “We need to get to a place where we can do our programs and not have to worry about who’s going to be here.”

More than 52,000 clients are estimated to be affected by the programs’ suspension.

Those affected include 39,000 served by a school vision and hearing program, 1,800 behavioral health clients and 4,000 clients who use HIV prevention and education services.

The department’s outpatient mental health services are among those being suspended. Mental health patients discharged from area hospitals make up the majority of clients served by the program, along with Medicaid and Medicare recipients.

Will County Board Speaker Jim Moustis, R-Frankfort, suggested the county increase the health department’s levy under the county’s corporate fund.

“We’re going to have that discussion,” Moustis said.

Others suggested the department direct people to additional community resources. However, Olenek said the health department is doing that already, and in some cases, is the only provider for services.

Shifting the population to other local agencies isn’t the answer, said committee member Jackie Traynere, D-Bolingbrook.

“You talked about sending the public to other providers. I’m going to tell you I’ve talked to some of those other providers,” Traynere said. “They’re not getting paid by the state either. They’re already at capacity. They’re already going under.”

When the Tinley Park Mental Health Center closed in 2012 as part of the state’s plan to transition institutionalized mental health patients to community-based care settings, local health departments were given yearly grants to handle the influx.

That yearly grant – $682,000 for the Will County Health Department – never arrived this year because of Springfield’s budget impasse, said Joseph Troiani, director of behavior health programs.

More than 720 patients receive adult psychiatric services through the local agency, while 963 receive outpatient mental health services, he said.

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