Kaiser mental health clinicians striking in Northern California and Hawai’i
More than 2,000 NUHW members in Northern California and Hawai’i have been on strike for the entire month of September to make Kaiser Permanente offer fair contracts that increase staffing and improve access to mental health care.
The strike has captured national attention, shining a light on the nation’s largest non-profit HMO’s refusal to adequately staff its mental health clinics, leaving patients waiting months for therapy in violation of clinical standards and California law.
“It’s hard to go a month without a paycheck, but it’s nothing compared to what Kaiser patients endure waiting months for therapy that they should be receiving every week,” said Rachel Kaya, a psychologist at Kaiser’s Maui Lani clinic. “I won’t be complicit in Kaiser’s unethical treatment of our community.”
Kaiser patients have rallied to the support of therapists, speaking out at rallies and being featured in news stories. More than 200 Kaiser patients signed onto a letter calling on Kaiser CEO Greg Adams to resume bargaining after Kaiser walked away from negotiations. But when two patients attempted to deliver the letter to Adams, Kaiser officials locked them out of the company’s Oakland headquarters.
Elected officials have also stood alongside therapists. On September 27, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors held a hearing on Kaiser Permanente’s mental health deficiencies. Reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner newspapers were on hand to hear Supervisor Hillary Ronen open the hearing with a blistering critique of Kaiser, which refused to appear to answer questions.
“Kaiser, it is time to settle this contract,” Ronen said. “It is time to treat your workers and your patients with the respect and care they deserve.”
Board President Shammon Walton added, “I just want to say to Kaiser that just because you’re a giant, does not mean you cannot be knocked down. It is time for you to do the right thing.”
At the crux of both strikes is Kaiser’s refusal to achieve real parity for mental health care. In Hawai’i the HMO is telling state officials that it’s struggling to hire more mental health therapists, while insisting on wage freezes and retirement benefit cuts at contract negotiations, which would make it harder for the HMO to attract new therapists and keep its current workforce.
Earlier this year, the National Committee for Quality Assurance downgraded Kaiser’s accreditation status in Hawai’i and placed it under “corrective action” for deficiencies in providing accessible mental health care. The agency concluded that the lack of access to mental health care posed “a potential patient safety risk” and that “Kaiser’s prior efforts to improve access … have largely been ineffective.” Currently, Kaiser is the only health plan in Hawai’i under corrective action.
In California, The strike is the culmination of a 12-year struggle by Kaiser therapists to make the healthcare giant provide the same level of care for mental health as it does for medical services. Through their advocacy work, Kaiser has been fined by state regulators for denying members timely access to care, and the state legislature has passed a landmark mental health parity bill that requires health insurers, including Kaiser, to provide mental health therapy sessions within 10-business days unless the treating therapist determines that a longer wait would not be detrimental to the patients’ health. Despite the law, which went into effect earlier this year, Kaiser routinely makes patients wait months for therapy sessions.
“I’d rather leave Kaiser altogether than go back to work with a contract that forces us to break the law,” said Ilana Marcucci-Morris, a therapist for Kaiser in Oakland. “It’s time for Kaiser to get serious about mental health care so we can get back to work serving our community and providing patients with the care they need.”