CHICAGO — By 7:30 a.m., the line had already formed outside the Englewood Health Center.
By the time Darnell Robinson arrived at 10 a.m., when the free city-run sexually transmitted infection clinic opened for the day, the line ran down the block.
Robinson, like dozens of others who visited the clinic recently, was told to return the next day to be seen at the first-come, first-served clinic. But even after arriving at 9 a.m. the next day, he was too late. He never ended up getting tested.
"It's kind of ridiculous," said Robinson, 32, an electrician from the East Side. "This whole health care thing is completely out of hand. It's aggravating and frustrating that you need to go somewhere to get something done and you can't."
Lines and wait times at the city's sexually transmitted infection clinics have been getting longer in recent months, workers and patients say. The clinics have historically been understaffed, workers said, but reduced hours, staffing changes and retirements, as well as an increase in people seeking testing have made the problem worse.
The clinics are "terribly understaffed," said Jo Patton, special projects coordinator for AFSCME Council 31, which represents medical assistants and other non-nursing staff at clinics. She said federal grant funding remained virtually unchanged in recent years, and she blamed city management for the problems.
"The main issue is that the city has not handled [the administration of the sexually transmitted infection clinics well], and as a result, there are long wait lines and people are not getting the care that they need," Patton said. "Retirements are planned well ahead of time. The city knew well in advance. It's unclear as to why they are not on top of this issue."
The city denies staffing changed this year and said there weren't any reductions in hours at the clinics. Officials said there are plans to replace those who retired.
"The STI program has experienced several retirements in 2012 but the STI Health Center hours have not changed and we have maintained staffing levels to serve our patients," Health department spokesman Tony Beltran said in a statement. "In addition, CDPH is recruiting new medical providers to more permanently replace the providers that retired."
Three of the clinics are now served by just one doctor, said Dr. Odie Payne III, a 25-year veteran of the health department, who retired in November from the Roseland clinic. He said another physician from the South Austin clinic also recently went on medical leave, possibly contributing to longer wait times.
Sandra Robinson, a nurse and Illinois Nurses Association union official, said the South Austin Clinic had been slated to close until February because of staff shortages. But last Monday, after DNAinfo.com Chicago had raised questions with the city about staffing levels, Robinson was told the clinic would remain open.
"What I'm hearing is that they're calling people back to work," Robinson said. "Employees got upset. They called downtown and said you are disturbing our neighborhoods that need it most."
The city did not respond to follow-up requests for comment on Robinson's claim.
According to Robinson, 140 city health employees, including 15 registered nurses, were laid off in June when the city announced it had formed partnerships with several private health centers to help the city save $10 million. Some of those workers are now being deployed to the sexually transmitted infection clinics, which see the bulk of patients treated by the city public health clinics, Payne said.
One of the private centers, Erie Family Health Centers, took over the primary care services offered at the West Town clinic, which operates in the same building as the city's STI clinic that is open only on Fridays.
Amy Valukas, vice president of planning and strategy for Erie, said the transition has gone smoothly and they have even extended hours for primary care patients. She could not say, however, why the city STI clinic was now only open one day a week.
“I cannot speak to CDPH's motivations for reducing availability," she said.
There is also conflicting information on whether clinic hours had changed. While Payne and other workers said that hours at South Austin and West Town clinics were reduced in the past year, Beltran insists no hours of service were changed in that time, and that every patient is treated.
"All patients that come to the health centers are seen. However when there is a large influx of patients, a few may be asked to return the following day," Beltran said.
But in three separate visits to clinics made by DNAinfo.com Chicago, several patients — including Darnell Robinson — reported that they weren't seen, and some didn't end up getting treatment the next day, either.
During one visit earlier this month to the Englewood clinic, 49 patients lined up by the time the clinic opened. But a nurse at the clinic, who asked not to be named, said only 20 patients were expected to be seen that day.
Others waited several hours longer than in the past. Mike, 40, of the Far South Side, arrived at the Englewood clinic at 8:30 a.m. He said he was finally seen at 1:30 p.m. and left the clinic at 4:30 p.m. after his tests were completed.
Although Mike, who asked that his last name not be used, was grateful to get treated, he said when he last visited the clinic 1 1/2 years ago, it only took an hour and a half to see a doctor.
City officials didn't respond to questions about average wait times.
While workers believe more patients are seeking treatment for STIs, it's not clear because stats aren't kept on those who are turned away or who leave because they don't want to wait.
The clinics had 14,000 visits in the first nine months of this year, which is behind the pace of last year when there were 24,000 visits for the entire year. At least one study, a Dec. 15, 2011 Special Syphilis Surveillance Report, suggests that congenital syphilis in the city nearly doubled in 2010 and the number of primary and secondary syphilis cases among females and heterosexual males increased by 171 percent and 115 percent, respectively, between 2009 and 2010.
The Englewood nurse said patients need to be more vocal about the situation.
“Every day we have to allow patients to become upset," the nurse said. "Unfortunately most of our patients are not educated enough to help themselves. I encourage patients to call downtown and voice their frustration."