California agency probes Kaiser mental health care amid strike

As Kaiser therapists approach the fourth week of an indefinite strike, an interesting twist has developed in the battle against California’s largest HMO. State regulators launched an investigation last week into whether Kaiser Permanente violated state laws by failing to offer its members timely access to mental health care during an indefinite strike that began Aug. 15. The Department of Managed Health Care said it received 19 patient complaints from Aug. 15 to 20 about access to behavioral health appointments at Kaiser. The National Health Workers Union, which represents the striking therapists, also filed a formal complaint with the agency, alleging Kaiser shirked its legal duty to provide care.

Kaiser said in a statement that several hundred mental health workers are continuing to work and support members during the strike. “To date, about 40 percent of our specialty clinicians are caring for members rather than going on strike, with more returning every day,” Kaiser said in a statement last week. “In addition, our psychiatrists, clinical managers and other licensed Kaiser Permanente clinicians have stepped in to meet with people in need of care.”

The union disputed Kaiser’s claims that an adequate workforce remains to meet members’ mental health needs. “Kaiser is lying to patients about when they will get an appointment; they lie to state leaders about compliance with California’s mental health laws; and now they are lying about how many therapists have crossed the picket line,” union spokesman Matt Artz wrote in an email to SFGATE.

The Division of Managed Health Care, the regulatory body that governs managed care plans, has been closely monitoring Kaiser’s mental health services after receiving complaints from patients in May. In 2013, the department hit Kaiser with a $4 million penalty for providing poor access to behavioral health services, including long wait times and actively discouraging patients from seeking individualized care. Kaiser was fined again in 2017 for failing to provide required patient care data to the state Medicaid program.

“The goal is to act as quickly as possible to ensure that enrollees’ health care rights are protected,” Rachel Arrezola, a spokeswoman for the department, wrote in a statement last week. “The department will follow up on the evidence and take whatever action is necessary to protect enrollees.”

More than 2,000 licensed therapists, psychologists, social workers and chemical dependency counselors are participating in the walkout at Northern California hospitals, calling on Kaiser to increase staffing and end long patient waits for appointments. The union claims patients in Northern California face waits of four to 12 weeks between appointments with Kaiser clinicians.

Kaiser said in a statement that the union intends to call a strike despite being close to reaching an agreement in negotiations. He also said the union was mainly pushing for health workers to spend less time with patients.

At this point, there are no signs that Kaiser and staff will return to the negotiating table. Union workers will be on the pickets, joined by their families and community members on Labor Day, marking the fourth week of the strike and the longest strike by mental health workers in US history.

“Kaiser pulled out of bargaining right before the strike when we rejected his contract ultimatum, which provided more money for clinicians but nothing for patients,” said Sal Rosselli, union president. “We are ready to return to the negotiating table when Kaiser is ready to talk about improving access to mental health care and giving therapists enough time to fulfill their patient care duties so that Kaiser can keep its therapists and comply with state mental health access laws.”

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