Thursday marks a month since more than 2,000 mental health care workers at Kaiser Permanente went on strike to demand more staff and better access to care for patients who sometimes have to wait months for treatment appointments.
The National Federation of Health Care Workers said in a statement that Kaiser declined to consider their proposal to improve conditions for health care workers and patients during negotiations Wednesday night.
“It’s so frustrating to be on the front lines of a mental health crisis only to have an employer in complete denial about it,” said Matt Hannon, a psychologist at Kaiser in South San Francisco and a union negotiating committee member. “Kaiser officials have shown once again that they are not interested in providing timely mental health care that complies with state law or meets the needs of patients.”
NUHW has suggested that Kaiser consider an increase in staffing that would alleviate “unsustainable” workloads that the union says have led to high turnover among mental health care workers at HMO.
Among the proposals rejected Wednesday night, workers asked for more time to see returning patients and a cap on the number of cases so therapists can provide return appointments at the pace required by state law.
The Mental Health Equity Act, Senate Bill 221, went into effect in July and requires health insurers to provide return dates for mental health and substance abuse patients no longer than 10 days after the previous hearing.
The American Psychological Association recommends weekly therapy for people with depression — twice as much therapy for those with PTSD.
This month-long strike ended patient care. Kaiser therapists want the organization to provide the same level of care for mental health as it does for medical services, according to a NUHW statement.
The amazing therapists have now missed multiple salaries because they fixed on their conditions.
“We will continue to strike until Kaiser stops gambling with patients’ lives and works with therapists to create a system that provides patients with the care they need to improve,” said Kimberly Hollingsworth-Horner, a therapist at Kaiser in Fresno.
Going without pay for a month was “difficult,” Hollingsworth-Horner, who also serves on the negotiating committee, said, but “nothing” compared to the months-long wait times between treatment sessions that patients endured for years.
California fined Kaiser $4 million in 2013 for delaying and denying mental health care, but waiting times to get mental health care haven’t improved.
NUHW said in a fact sheet on the strike that Kaiser failed to increase staffing despite the increased demand for mental health care during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, Kaiser appears to be working on clinical bleeding: The union says 377 people left the company between June 2021 and May 2022 in the Northern California area. More than 660 resigned, company-wide.
A NUHW survey of more than 200 departing physicians found that 80 percent found their workloads unsustainable and 70 percent indicated an inability to “treat patients in line with standards of care and medical necessity.”
Instead of quitting, doctors in sit-down lines are working to change the way Kaiser runs the mental health department.
Melody Bumgardner, a psychologist who works for Kaiser Santa Clara and the Campbell satellite, has worked for Kaiser for 22 years and said the organization had better working conditions in its first decade there, but that those conditions and its turnover have worsened in recent years.
“When I first started working here, we were working at full capacity,” Baumgardner said at the picket line outside Kaiser San Jose on Thursday. “It was hard to get a job at Kaiser. People wanted to work here and people stayed for a long time. But in the past 10 years, the majority of people who started before they were here often leave even three or five years.”
Bumgardner said she has been with the company for so long because she appreciates working with the “diverse population” of patients she sees and the relationships she has built with colleagues over the past two decades. It also wants to see real change, for Kaiser to use its “enormous resources” to provide timely mental health services to its members.
“We are standing up to Kaiser with this strike and we are standing up for patients who have been denied adequate mental health care for far too long,” said Jeffrey Chen Harding, a licensed clinical social worker for Kaiser in San Francisco.
Despite Wednesday’s stalemate, Kaiser declined to schedule additional negotiating sessions with the union and no further talks are currently scheduled. Kaiser officials were not immediately available to comment on recent negotiations with the federation.