Kaiser mental health clinicians authorize 5-day statewide strike

November 20th, 2018

Approximately 4,000 caregivers are prepared to strike more than 100 Kaiser clinics and medical facilities across California to settle a contract that improves access to mental health care.

Seven years after exposing Kaiser Permanente’s failure to provide timely access to mental health care in violation of state law, Kaiser mental health clinicians are preparing to hold a five-day strike next month to compel the nation’s largest HMO to fix ongoing understaffing problems that force patients to wait a month or more for mental health therapy appointments.

More than 80 percent of Kaiser psychologists, therapists, social workers, and addiction medicine specialists — along with other healthcare professionals — have signed petitions authorizing a strike next month if no agreement is reached on a new contract.

The workers’ three-year contract that expired in September included provisions intended to increase staffing and reduce patients’ wait times of up to two months for follow-up appointments. However, understaffing and lengthy delays have persisted, forcing many patients to pay out of pocket for non-Kaiser therapists or go without treatment altogether.

“This ultimately comes down to resources,” said Sal Rosselli, President of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents the Kaiser clinicians. “Kaiser has $42 billion in cash and investments, but it underfunds its mental health care services to the point that overworked clinicians are leaving in droves and patients with serious conditions wait weeks for appointments or are pushed into group therapy.”

A 2011 complaint filed by Kaiser clinicians resulted in California’s Department of Managed Health Care issuing a $4 million fine against Kaiser in 2013 for violating the state’s Mental Health Parity Act and timely access rules. The agency found that Kaiser patients were still enduring excessive waits for appointments in follow-up reports released in 2015 and 2017.

Following the 2017 report, Kaiser and agency officials reached a settlement agreement that required Kaiser to accept a three-year program of outside monitoring of its mental health services by a firm with authority to recommend further fines for failure to remedy patient access issues.

Although Kaiser claims to have made strides, clinicians’ appointment calendars are still booked weeks in advance and patients with diagnoses such as depression and bipolar disorder often have to wait a month or more for their next treatment appointments.

“Many of the issues that have plagued Kaiser for years have not gone away,” said Kelly Magee-O’Dea, a Kaiser licensed clinical social worker in the Bay Area. “The wait times for appointments are far too long, and the end result for too many people is that they either get sicker or they drop out of treatment frustrated because they cannot get the care they need.”

“If Kaiser is serious about being a leader in mental health care, it needs to get serious about listening to its mental health clinicians and its patients,” Marirose Occhiogrosso, a Kaiser therapist in Los Angeles said. “That means finally using some of its massive resources to properly staff its mental health services and provide the care that patients need.”