Kaiser Permanente misleads press, public in attempt to blunt negative publicity stemming from class-action lawsuit

KaiserSeptember 18, 2015

HMO’s press release makes misleading claims about staffing, new hiring in Kaiser’s mental health departments

Damage-control effort is response to recent news regarding patient suicides, lawsuits, state regulators’ damning report on Kaiser’s violations of state law, and mental health clinicians’ initiative to hold Kaiser accountable to its patients

EMERYVILLE — Kaiser Permanente, in an effort to deflect mounting criticism of its mental health care services from patients and their families, state regulators, and NUHW-represented Kaiser mental health clinicians, claimed in a press release earlier this week to have hired hundreds of additional therapists.

Kaiser’s misleading figures fail to account for staff attrition Kaiser has suffered due to the HMO’s patient-care failures, violations of state law, and declining working conditions. Kaiser’s numbers also fail to account for a dramatic increase in enrollment. In the past four years, Kaiser has added nearly 1.2 million new members in California, significantly boosting demand for services at its mental health clinics while staffing has stagnated. Furthermore, a substantial portion of Kaiser’s new members have more acute mental health conditions requiring more intensive services.

“At best, Kaiser is simply treading water,” says Clement Papazian, a psychiatric social worker at Kaiser’s Oakland Medical Center and president of NUHW’s Northern California chapter of Kaiser mental health clinicians. “This means our mental health clinics are still understaffed and our patients are still forced to endure lengthy, illegal delays for therapy. They’re simply not getting the care they need, deserve, and pay for with their monthly premiums.”

Kaiser’s dubious press release is an attempt to blunt negative publicity stemming from NUHW’s five-year struggle to hold the HMO accountable to its patients and staff. In February, California’s Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC), after investigating thousands of pages of documentation provided by NUHW, cited Kaiser for the second time in two years for “serious” and “systemic” violations of state law. DMHC investigators found 22% of Northern California patients and 9% of Southern California patients experienced excessive delays in initial and/or follow-up therapy appointments. The DMHC found that patients were forced to wait as long as 41 days for an initial appointment, far exceeding the maximum 10-day wait time under California law.

Click here for the DMHC report

After denying the claims of its clinicians for years, Kaiser attempted to deflect the negative media attention surrounding the February DMHC report by claiming that it had a plan to fix the problems in its mental health services. Kaiser did not offer specifics regarding this plan then, nor has Kaiser offered any since.

Since February, Kaiser has continued to face unwanted publicity for its mental health care failures. In July Barbara Ragan, a retired Kaiser employee, committed suicide by jumping, Kaiser card in hand, from a Kaiser parking garage in Santa Rosa after the HMO informed her that she would have to wait eight weeks for one-on-one therapy for severe depression. Ragan’s death was “a statement,” her husband told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, about “how [Kaiser] treats people.”

(“Kaiser Permanente faces renewed criticism over mental health services after Santa Rosa suicide,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, August 1, 2015)

On August 31, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Wynne Carvill denied Kaiser’s motion to dismiss a class-action lawsuit against the HMO. The lawsuit, brought by Kaiser patients, alleges that Kaiser is violating multiple California laws by withholding adequate care from patients with mental illness. The lead plaintiff’s husband committed suicide after Kaiser denied him timely and appropriate care for treatment amid a crisis related to his bipolar disorder.

In his ruling, Judge Carvill cited Kaiser’s understaffing of its mental health services: “An inference to be drawn from all of the Plaintiffs’ allegations is that Kaiser simply does not allocate adequate resources to coverage, treatment and care of its members suffering from mental illness. All of the Plaintiffs’ claims, whether focused on long wait times or the predominance of group therapy as opposed to individual therapy, may well be accounted for by a shortage of providers.”

(“Judge clears path for class-action lawsuit against Kaiser for violations of Mental Health Parity Act,” Pasadena Independent, September 9, 2015)

The judge’s ruling parallels the February DMHC report in which government investigators concluded that Kaiser’s access failures are fundamentally rooted in its failure to have sufficient numbers of mental health providers available for patients. The DMHC report states that Kaiser’s “monthly access reports suggest that the Plan’s current behavioral health provider network remains inadequate to serve the needs of its enrollee population” (p. 26).

Click here for the DMHC report

DMHC Director Shelley Rouillard underscored Kaiser’s staffing failures in comments published in the Los Angeles Times: “That is not a good performance,” Rouillard said. “Fundamentally it comes down to there are not enough providers in the Kaiser system to serve everyone who needs mental health services.”

(“California again slams Kaiser for delays in mental health treatment,” Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2015)

In addition, Kaiser is facing a wave of retirements. Nearly 30 percent of Kaiser’s 2,600 California mental health clinicians are at or approaching retirement age, meaning Kaiser’s meager hiring program will break even at best.

(“Kaiser’s Mental Health Care Crisis,” NUHW, November 2014)

Rather than commit to staffing its clinics appropriately, Kaiser is instead trying to implement a quota system that will force its clinicians to fit more and more patients into their already overbooked schedules.

Kaiser’s failure to invest in adequate mental health services comes at the same time that the giant HMO is reporting record profits. During the first six months of 2015, Kaiser reported $2 billion in profits. Since 2009, the company’s profits total more than $16.6 billion and its executives have enjoyed multimillion-dollar salaries and bonuses. Kaiser also has amassed a $23 billion reserve — 1500 percent more than state law requires.