Thousands of Kaiser Permanente mental health workers are entering the third week of an indefinite statewide strike, demanding better working conditions and shorter wait times for patients seeking care.
More than 2,000 therapists, psychologists, counselors and social workers represented by the National Union of Health Workers (NUHW) participated in the strike at daily rallies outside Kaiser Permanente locations and government buildings across the state.
Ken Rogers is a Kaiser psychologist in Elk Grove. He has been picketing in the Sacramento area for the past three weeks and has been an employee of the organization for 18 years.
“Today was an extremely good day,” Rogers said of the picket attendance at Kaiser Medical Center on Morse Avenue in the Arden area. “We’re all kind of nervous about what’s going to happen next, but there’s a lot of good support here.”
Kaiser and NUHW are negotiating a contract for mental health clinicians in Northern California starting in September 2021, when their last contract expires. Clinicians have agreed to a salary offer from Kaiser, but the two groups are divided on working conditions.
Union officials say clinicians are striking because of the heavy workload, which in turn is creating what they call record turnover. They also say patient wait times often violate a recently passed state law that mandates that requests for mental health care be completed within 10 business days unless a clinician says otherwise.
But Kaiser management says the strike is because of the time clinicians spend performing administrative tasks.
“It is important to know that despite public claims, NUHW’s primary demand is that union members spend less time seeing patients,” Kaiser Permanente officials said in a prepared statement. “Our patients cannot afford a proposal that significantly reduces the time available to care for them and their mental health needs.”
Rogers said the lack of time given by Kaiser to complete these administrative tasks contributes to the heavy workload for clinicians. Duties that fall into this category include updating charts and communicating with patients by phone and email.
“That’s just as important as seeing the patients face-to-face,” Rogers said.
Last week, the California Department of Managed Health Care announced it had opened an investigation into Kaiser’s response to patient requests for mental health treatment.
The department also said it plans to monitor the care of Kaiser patients seeking mental health services during the strike.
“Health plans must continue to comply with the law during a labor strike, including meeting standards for timely access and providing appropriate mental health and substance use disorder care to enrollees,” said a prepared statement by the department.
Kaiser Permanente officials say they were “very close” to an agreement with union leadership the week of Aug. 8 — a week before the strike began — but ultimately the two groups could not reach a resolution. They last met to negotiate on August 13.
Kaiser Permanente says they are actively working to meet members’ mental health needs and state requirements, “using every available resource.”
Part of that effort includes hiring temporary staff from outside the organization to keep up with the many requests for mental health services while their employees are on 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 Permanente officials said. “We are in the process of reaching agreements with hundreds of community mental health providers to open their schedules — at least for two months — so we can treat more of our patients.”
On Monday, more than 50 Kaiser mental health workers working in Hawaii began their second strike of the year, joining Northern California clinicians in protesting staff shortages and high turnover rates.
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