Kaiser mental health workers signal indefinite strike in Northern California

A union representing 2,000 Kaiser mental health workers in Northern California on Aug. 2 announced plans for an indefinite strike starting Aug. 15.

Among the reasons union representatives outlined: the heavy workload of doctors and patients waiting weeks or even months for mental health care. Even as demand for care has grown, frustrated therapists are abandoning the health care giant, union spokesman Matt Artz said.

“We don’t take the strikes lightly,” Sal Rosselli, president of the National Health Workers Union, which represents the clinicians, said in a prepared statement, “but it’s time to take a stand and get Kaiser to spend some of its billions on health care mental health.”

Deb Katsavas, senior vice president of Kaiser Permanente, said in an emailed statement that the strike threat is “an unfortunate bargaining tactic that this union uses every time it bargains for a new contract.”

Calling the union’s tactics “unethical and counterproductive,” Katsavas said the two sides are “close to an agreement” and that Kaiser is “committed to bargaining in good faith to reach a fair and just settlement that is good for our therapists and our patients . “

In recent years, the company has drawn increased scrutiny from lawmakers for its mental health services. In May, the Department of Managed Health Care announced it would conduct a non-routine audit of Kaiser’s mental health services.

The union and Kaiser had another bargaining session scheduled for Friday, Artz said. He said Kaiser Northern California mental health workers, including psychologists, social workers, therapists and addiction counselors, have gone on short strikes six times in the past 4 years. It will be their first indefinite strike, meaning the union has not set an end date.

Kaiser has 4.6 million enrollees in Northern California, Artz said, although that figure does not reflect how many currently access their mental health benefits.

In a letter sent Sunday to the Department of Managed Health Care, which regulates health plans, the union asked the department to ensure that Kaiser will continue to provide mental health care to patients during the strike, instead of canceling appointments.

Amanda Levy, deputy director of health policy and stakeholder relations for the Department of Managed Health Care, said the department continues to monitor access to services for patients affected by the strike.

“The law requires health plans to provide enrollees with necessary medical care within timely access and clinical standards at all times, which includes during an employee strike,” she said in an emailed statement.

Despite growing efforts at the state level to enforce mental health equity laws, Kaiser mental health practitioners say they still struggle to provide adequate and timely care to patients.

Sara Soroken, who has worked as a therapist at Kaiser Fairfield for six years, said access to treatment has deteriorated during her time there. She said the pandemic has worsened the situation, with more patients seeking care even as more therapists are leaving.

“We are at a crisis point right now,” she said. “Things are worse than ever.”

Kaiser is not the only provider facing a shortage of mental health doctors. Complaints of shortages have also been raised by counties, school districts and nonprofits across the state. Artz said some Kaiser providers are hired to work at telehealth startups, where the money is good and work-from-home opportunities abound. Others enter private practice.

The union says the rate at which mental health clinicians are leaving Kaiser has nearly doubled in the past year, with 668 clinicians leaving between June 2021 and May 2022, compared with 335 the previous year. In a union survey of 200 of these departing clinicians, 85 percent said they were leaving because their workload was unbearable or they felt they did not have enough time to complete work, and 76 percent said they were unable to “treat patients in accordance with standards of care and medical necessity.’

Some of these concerns are not new, although the pandemic has exacerbated them.

In 2013, the Department of Managed Health Care fined Kaiser $4 million for failing to provide adequate mental health treatment.

In a hearing this spring, lawmakers raised concerns about the state’s plans to move an additional 200,000 Medi-Cal members to Kaiser, given problems with mental health treatment. Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco has introduced a bill to significantly increase fines for health plans that don’t comply with state laws.

Another Wiener bill, SB 221, which went into effect on July 1, aims to ensure patients don’t face long delays for follow-up treatment through commercial providers like Kaiser. Specifically, the new union-sponsored law requires patients to receive mental health follow-up care within 10 business days, unless the provider determines that a longer wait would not be detrimental to the patient.

At a virtual press conference in late June, Kaiser mental health professionals said the healthcare giant is nowhere near meeting those requirements.

Jocelyn Wiener writes about health and mental health for CalMatters, where this article originally appeared. Email: [email protected]

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