The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a massive deterioration in mental health levels around the world. As the number of people with symptoms of depression and anxiety continues to rise, so do concerns about access to mental health resources.
Senate Bill 221, authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and signed into law in October, would require health care organizations and insurers to support patients seeking mental health and substance use treatment with appointments for no more than 10 working hours. days.
But Kaiser Permanente, one of the state’s largest health care providers, may not be equipped to fully meet the law’s requirements when it takes effect Friday. Wiener, along with representatives from the National Health Care Workers Union and Kaiser employees, expressed their concerns at a virtual news conference last Thursday morning.
Before the law, patients in California were forced to wait months to receive return therapy appointments from their insurers after initial health assessments. During these extended breaks, many experienced further deterioration in their mental health before seeing a therapist.
“I often can’t get these patients a timely appointment at Kaiser and ask managers for an immediate non-Kaiser placement,” said Sarah Soroken, a triage therapist at Kaiser who is based in Fairfield.
“Unfortunately, Kaiser does not allow patients with the most severe symptoms to be referred for treatment outside of Kaiser,” Soroken said.
Soroken noted that her patients undergo six- to eight-week intervals between individual therapy appointments.
Soroken shared redacted appointment documentation that shows the time gap between the dates of a patient’s mental health evaluation and their first therapy appointment. Some records show gaps of up to two months.
“No matter what Kaiser officials may say, Kaiser is not willing to comply with this law. It is even less ready today than it was when the law was signed into law eight months ago,” she said.
Although the bill was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October, it goes into effect in early July to give insurers enough time to adjust to the new regulations. This includes hiring more therapists and expanding mental health networks.
However, officials at the briefing last week were not convinced that Kaiser had taken the necessary steps to expand its resources.
“Kaiser officials say they’re hiring mental health doctors, but they’re not saying how many mental health doctors they’re losing because therapists are fed up with making patients wait eight weeks between appointments,” said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of healthcare workers.
“Kaiser may have the best mental health system in the country,” Rosselli continued. “But once again, Kaiser executives have refused to invest in its mental health services, and its members are suffering the consequences.”
Kaiser Permanente, which has been negotiating with NUHW since their contract expired last September, says they are committed to increasing their workforce to meet SB 221’s requirements.
“While the mental health physician shortage continues to be a challenge for every health care organization in California, the implementation of SB 221 to Kaiser Permanente’s model of care and services for mental health and addictions is underway,” Kaiser said in a statement.
The healthcare provider also said it has invested $30 million to build a pipeline that will educate and train more mental health professionals across the state.
SB 221’s new requirements give Kaiser the chance to make structural changes to its mental health networks.
“We know that training and hiring more therapists will not be enough to meet the complex and growing mental health needs of our population,” Kaiser said in a statement. “We must also look for new and innovative approaches to care delivery.”