After 37-years, State closes Dr. Carl C. Bell’s mental health center

Senator Trotter fights to help patients


By Chinta Strausberg


Dr. Carl C. Bell Thursday appealed to Governor Pat Quinn to grant him a three-month bridge fund so he can properly close his beloved South Side Community Mental Health Council where he has been president/CEO for nearly 40-years and where he continues to work without pay since last March.

Located at 8704 S. Constance and 62nd and Western, Dr. Bell said come August 1, 2012, he may have to closed his building because the state did not renew his contract. “I don’t know what I will do,” said Bell. “I may pitch a tent on the City of Chicago property and see patients. “ At one point, Bell was seeing 26,000 every fiscal year and 800 coming through two emergency rooms.

“I still got patients,” said Dr. Bell who is a noted black psychiatrist respected around the nation. “I tried to call everybody. We sent out letters, but many of our patients move around. We are trying to contact all of our patients.” His contract expired June 30. 2012. “Everybody who has been here since July 1st are volunteers and there aren’t many of those,” he said.

He still has a receptionist but the building personnel handed in their keys two-days ago. “Our clinical services are pretty much close. I will be there if the lights stay on and the telephones work until July 31st. I have patients. This kind of hit us as a surprise,” said Bell.

“Dr. Bell is a national treasurer that national people have called in for advice…people like President George Bush,” said Senator Donne Trotter (D-17th) who called the closure of Bell’s health center a travesty.”

Trotter, whose office is in Bell’s building, said the doctor “has been a builder of people and has always worked over capacity. I watched his employees come to work for months without pay. They volunteered after they quit. I am hurt by this because of all of the people that will be negatively impacted.  No one is more knowledgeable that Carl.”

Trotter said he is working on getting bridge money for Dr. Bell. You just can’t leave people out here in the streets. Yesterday, a lady and her three children came there and nobody was here. They didn’t get the memo because they are closed. There has to be a bridge, a transition for that to happen.”

According to Trotter, August 1st is the deadline, but he added, “If Jesse Jackson can save Soul Queen when the city closed it, they can save the Community Health Council.”

Dr. Bell said, “We were working with the state, and I thought we were making progress at our negotiations to stay open or at least if not staying open can get some bridge funding to transfer 1,000 patients. We’re talking about poor black people. They move around like anybody’s business and they are hard to track down. We don’t know how many people have been notified or not by the state or by us. We’ve been calling and sent out letters. Everybody is doing everything we can to let people know we’re essentially closed.

“The problem is I have patients scheduled until September 17th,” said Bell who said many don’t have valid phone numbers or have viable addresses. “I am prepared to camp out from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. to see patients. I don’t have electricity. I don’t have water or a bathroom. I guess I can pitch a tent and hopefully if the patients remember what medications they are on” he can still treat them.

So sure he was going to remain open, Dr. Bell had begun to computerize their records. “If I don’t have power, I can’t get to them. What I have been doing is I have been printing out their evaluations if I have it on the computer and the last progress note” that includes some medical history. He gives them another letter from the state letting them know where they can resume their treatment.

Dr. Bell has been with the Community Mental Health Council since 1975.  When he graduated from medical school in 1971, Bell found a small number of physicians who were trying to start a comprehensive medical center. Since that was his goal, he joined their efforts. In 1975, he got funded and in 1980 they received a comprehensive grant.

Asked why didn’t the state renew their contract, Dr. Bell said, “I honestly don’t know why. I’m sure the state had good reasons form their perspective. I am not mad at them. We’ve been having financial difficulties partly on us and partly on the state, which has been paying slower and slower.  We were weak financially since 2005. Maybe we were the weakest of the lot to make an investment in or maybe we are the diseased gazelle that needs to be killed by the lion, but I really don’t know what happened,” he said.

“We’ve always worked very closely with the state. We’ve always had good relationships with the state. I don’t know what happened but when you haven’t paid staff and the state hasn’t paid you, it’s hard for staff to come to work when they haven’t been paid in months,” said Bell.

“The state was making demands on us. We were doing our best to meet those demands, but if you don’t have infrastructure…,” providing adequate care is a challenge. “Right now, there are maybe five people working there and I am seeing 45 patients a day on Wednesday’s, Friday’s and Saturday’s at least until the end of July. I am trying to get everybody their medication and their progress report. I am prepared to do it through the middle of September if I have a building.

“We don’t have any money; so I’m not sure when the electricity will go off or the lights will go out,” said Bell who needs bridge money to help people until they are properly transferred.

Bell received his last paycheck last March, but he has a part-time job at the University of Illinois on Tuesday and Thursday’s. Asked if he has used his personal funds to support the operations and the staff, Bell said he has and that the Council owes him “a lot.”

Regardless of the pay, Dr. Bell, who has overseen a $20 million operation at the Council with slow receivables coming in, is committed to helping his patients. Referring to the FY12 contract, Bell said, “We fulfilled that contract.”

‘Sometimes when you do something for free sometimes people say, ‘well, hell. Why should I pay you when you’re working for free….”

Asked his next step, Dr. Bell said, ‘I don’t know. I know I don’t have the organization I helped build over the last 37-years. I’ve got this part-time job at the University of Illinois that will end in about six-months to a year. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

In his efforts to save the health facility, Dr. Bell has pulled down some of his pension funds only to find out his staff was doing the same. “We’ve got vans and one guy would get the vans fixed using his personal credit cards. It’s not like we’re rich, black bourgeoisie people having money lying around…because we don’t.

“You know how you get into a place where you either cast your lot with black people or you abandoned them. We couldn’t do that,” said Bell who fears African Americans might turn on them because they did not get their contract renewed.

Asked if he could talk to President Obama what would he say, Dr. Bell said, “he’s kind of hard to get to, but if I could I would say if you look at the services we have done over the years, we should be given some consideration. We had a major influence in public policy. If you look at the Patient Care and Affordability Act, the prevention that’s in there and there is a huge chunk of prevention in our health services in that Act along with the research the Council did.

His Council did research on how to strengthen families, how to involve Child Protective Services, the work around HIV and preventing violence. “Just that alone has had tremendous national influence,” said Bell. “We have helped a tremendous number of people.

At one point, he had seven psychiatrists who left when the state was slow in paying. “Again, we are not mad at the state” and said he will continue to try and seek an audience with the Governor to request three-months bridge money.

“I never realized how difficult it was without any help or money to pay for things. I was scared, terrified as our support and infrastructure began to fragment. “

Asked if an audit was done on his funds, Dr. Bell said one was executed for FY 11. He hired people to help to do that. Asked if the state do an audit of their records, Bell said they gave him FY 12 records. “Everything was not OK. We were in a hole. We’ve been working through a deficit since 2005, which was $3 million. We were trying to dig our way out and were doing that, but then the economic downturn hit and the money began to slow like molasses.”

Bell said that is when staff began to leave because he could not pay them on time. The state was slow in paying.

“We moved in that building in 1987. We don’t know how long the phones, lights or electricity will be on, and I don’t know how long the board will allow us to keep the building open. They are talking about closing the building on July 31st but no decision has been made yet. They’re trying to help, too,” said Bell. “We have not had any money coming in to help us” through this crisis. “We are in the same boat that the patients we care for are in.” His staff members are hurting financially as well.

Dr. Bell tried to cash in some life insurance policy and pension plan and gave the staff his policy to help keep the doors open. “I know they have one policy of mine, but when I tried to give them another, they wouldn’t take it,” said Bell. “We used to put staff payroll on my personal credit card,” he said.  “I found out other staff were doing the same thing.”

So, right now, Dr. Bell is poised to pitch a tent if his building is closed for the sake of his patients. He sees from three to 45 people a day and some are new patients. “The problem is anywhere between 35 percent to 50 percent of our patients don’t have good phone numbers or addresses. We’ve been reaching out and calling people and we get no answer….”

“My fear are the people who don’t have phones who use their last bus fare to come to his health center that may be closed. “My concern is people will be showing up and nobody will be there and they will be out of medicine. That won’t work. I’d rather pitch a tent or a desk, some paper and a prescription pad and see people but the problem is I won’t have their records.”

Bell will be there until July 31, 2012 but doesn’t know what will happen after that. “We can find space,” he said but the problem is how will the patients know where to go. “I’d rather be there in a tent or sitting at a table to see them. At least they can get their medicine and a progress report…. It’s unfortunate for the patients and the staff.”

Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host. You can e-mail Strausberg at: