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2 Almost Empty : Clinics Find New Troubles in Reprieves

Times Staff Writers

Confusion over whether eight Los Angeles County mental health clinics would remain open left two San Fernando Valley clinics virtually deserted Tuesday while others prepared for an onslaught of patients.

After five months of scheduled closures of the clinics--including the two in the Valley--the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to spend $3.25 million to keep some of the centers open through August. County officials reached no decision on which clinics will be saved.

The supervisors’ action was little comfort for staff or clients of the clinics originally targeted for closure, including the East Valley Mental Health clinic in North Hollywood and the West Valley Mental Health clinic in Canoga Park. Though both clinics were open Tuesday, most clients “are definitely under the assumption that we are closed,” said Cynthia Lopez, assistant manager of the West Valley clinic.

Cardboard file boxes of medical charts remained half-packed at both locations, waiting rooms were empty and, at the end of the day, client tallies were down from hundreds to a handful. Staff members spent most of the day answering telephone calls from puzzled clients.

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“It was wild today with, ‘I heard, I heard’ and ‘What does this mean?’ ” said Gabrielle Williams, director of the East Valley clinic. “We’re saying that we are not quite sure ourselves right now.”

Client Bob Masserano, who suffers from anxiety and depression, has been going to the West Valley clinic for group sessions and medication four days a week for the past year.

“We’re really up in the air about what we’re going to do now,” Masserano said. “It affects your mind. It makes you worry a lot.”

Clinic Left in Turmoil

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At the county’s Crisis Management Center in Van Nuys, one of four places patients were referred in anticipation of the closures, director Cathy Geary reported a 20% increase over the past few weeks--to about 500 patients a month. Geary said she expects up to 1,000 more patients to sign up at the clinic if the two centers are eventually closed. She said that would tax staff and crowd office space.

Dr. Ian Hunter, director of the San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center, which expects 350 client referrals if the clinics close, said the fluid situation has left his clinic in turmoil. The San Fernando clinic, which is already filled to capacity, plans to discharge those of its 1,013 patients who least need medical attention to make way for the expected influx.

Clinic workers’ greatest fears are that confused patients will not turn up for treatment anywhere. Williams said it will be at least a month before it is clear which patients have dropped out of the system because most were given extra doses--up to a six-week supply--of the medication that stabilizes their conditions.

“A number of people will simply not seek additional help,” Hunter said. “The bus trip will be too far, they won’t have transportation or they will be mad at the system. . . . I worry about these people who drop out, who need help and won’t receive it. They could end up homeless or in jail.”

Even if the East and West Valley clinics do remain open, the problems are not over, clinic supervisors said. Already, staff has been cut up to 40% through attrition and transfers.


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