Kaiser locks out patients seeking better mental health care

NewsApril 24, 2019

by Sal Rosselli
NUHW President

For all its talk about launching a mental health revolution, Kaiser Permanente showed its true colors recently when it locked its own members out of its corporate offices in Oakland, CA.

On April 17, Kaiser patients, clinicians and community leaders came together with the goal of helping the HMO truly become a national model for mental health care, This gathering came just four months after Kaiser’s nearly 4,000 mental health clinicians, represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, held a five-day strike to demand that their patients no longer have to wait months for treatment appointments.

But, when several patients and their family members tried to enter the building in hopes of scheduling a meeting with CEO Bernard Tyson, Kaiser officials locked the doors.

I can’t fathom a more symbolic action by Kaiser. After years of denying patients access to mental health care, forcing them to wait months for therapy in violation of state law, Kaiser literally locked out patients who were trying to ensure that everyone got better access to care. The scene was captured in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Seong Brown, whose teenage daughter, Elizabeth Brown died by suicide after struggling to get care from Kaiser, said they shouldn’t have had to shame Tyson to get his attention. “Trying to get a meeting with Bernard Tyson has been no different than trying to get mental health care for my daughter,” she said. “We had to fight Kaiser every step of the way, and they still denied her the care she needed.”
Flanked by community leaders and Kaiser mental health clinicians, Brown and other patients recounted how Kaiser wouldn’t provide them the mental health care that was included in their insurance policies.

Kevin and Julie Dickens spoke about Kaiser denying Kevin mental health therapy for over two months, during which time he attempted to take his own life. And Susan Runyon recalled how Kaiser treated her cancer, but refused to provide one-on-one mental health therapy when she contemplated suicide. “The lack of parity is astounding and disturbing,” she said.

But Kaiser still shows no sign that it’s ready to tackle its mental health problem. The HMO remains under state-ordered outside monitoring of its mental health services after coming up short on three consecutive surveys conducted by California’s Department of Managed Health Care. Chronic understaffing has resulted in patients often being forced to wait up to two months for therapy appointments, although wait times at some clinics now exceed three months.

While Kaiser appears as intransigent as ever, there may be reason for optimism. With more people speaking out and calling attention to Kaiser’s lack of access to mental health care, the HMO may have no choice but to finally address its shortcomings and hire the staff necessary to do the job.

I’ve been leading health care unions for nearly 40 years. I’ve seen many courageous and selfless people accomplish amazing things — and make big corporations take actions they had no intention of doing. What I saw outside Kaiser headquarters was something truly special: workers and patients joining together for the common good. When that happens, there is nothing we can’t accomplish. Kaiser should provide timely access to mental health care. If not, Kevin Dickens suggested that it’s time for Kaiser to find a new CEO.

“Prove to us that you really, truly want to make a change,” Dickens said referencing Tyson during the gathering. “If you can’t do it, step away. Get somebody else in here who can, because that’s what we need.”

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