Kaiser rewards complicit unions with “hush money,” retaliates against workers and advocates who expose violations of state law and poor patient care

Eye on SEIUJune 8, 2015

Press release, June 8, 2015

Kaiser rewards complicit unions with “hush money,” retaliates against workers and their advocates who expose violations of state law and poor patient care

EMERYVILLE — Over the weekend, California’s largest healthcare provider, Kaiser Permanente, settled a contract with unions that comprise its Labor–Management Partnership (LMP). The new agreement includes wage increases and other gains. Some of those unions, such as Kaiser’s largest, SEIU, have been complicit in a scheme to block whistleblower protections for workers who report violations in health codes. SEIU among other labor groups also has abandoned its watchdog role by agreeing to no-disparagement clauses. Meanwhile, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and other non-LMP healthcare unions that have challenged many of Kaiser’s unethical illegal practices and advocated for improved patient services have been threatened with concessions and pension cuts.

The recent contract agreement with the LMP labor groups makes it evident that Kaiser Permanente is retaliating against whistleblowers and patient advocates, such as NUHW members, who brought much-needed scrutiny to the HMO’s severely understaffed mental health services.

Kaiser’s tentative contract settlement with its LMP unions does not include the health and retirement benefit cuts that Kaiser has tried to force on NUHW members for the past three years. In May, 94 percent of Kaiser employees represented by NUHW voted to reject a contract offer from Kaiser widely viewed as punitive to caregivers for advocating for patients.

“We have worked without a contract for three years while Kaiser has fought us tooth-and-nail on these patient care issues,” said Clement Papazian, a psychiatric social worker at Kaiser Oakland and president of NUHW’s Northern California chapter of Kaiser mental health clinicians. “Kaiser claimed they were pushing these cuts on all their workers, but clearly they are only pushing them on unions who advocate for Kaiser patients.”

“Kaiser’s message to us in bargaining was, ‘We do not want to reward you for your behavior over the past three years,'” said Papazian. “By ‘behavior,’ Kaiser means our effort to get Kaiser to stop breaking the law and to comply with legal and ethical guidelines for mental health services. State regulators have confirmed the truth of our allegations twice in two years and have fined Kaiser $4 million for violations of state law. But Kaiser’s response is to cut our pensions, jack up our healthcare costs, and deny us wage increases.”

“This is shameful behavior on Kaiser’s part,” said NUHW President Sal Rosselli. “Kaiser claims to bargain openly and honestly with their unions, but they have not bargained in good faith with NUHW for three years. They don’t believe in contracts for productive workers who work hard and speak up on behalf of their patients, they only want to pay ‘hush money.’”

Kaiser’s LMP unions represent more than 100,000 Kaiser employees. NUHW represents 4,000 Kaiser healthcare workers.

“Clearly our resistance to Kaiser’s cuts helped the LMP unions avoid those cuts,” said Rosselli. “Had we accepted them, the LMP unions likely would have accepted them too. Now Kaiser is retaliating against NUHW for our advocacy of improved patient care. It’s a clear message to the workforce: keep your mouths shut or Kaiser will come after you.”

In February, the California Department of Managed Health Care released a follow-up study of Kaiser mental health services that confirmed NUHW members’ allegations that the HMO continues to violate state law two years after the DMHC fined Kaiser $4 million and issued a Cease and Desist Order that demanded that Kaiser stop breaking the law.

Courage Campaign Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group, is launching an advertising campaign this week to draw attention to its website, TheRealKaiserPermanente.com, which features horror stories from Kaiser members and families who have suffered as a result of Kaiser’s delays and denials of timely, appropriate mental health services. Since the website launched a few months ago, scores of Kaiser patients have shared their stories through the website.

“In 2010, my sister became depressed and requested an appointment from Kaiser,” writes Marsha Grilli, a city council member in Milipitas, Calif., on the website’s homepage. “One week later, she hadn’t heard back from Kaiser and experienced a complete psychotic break. Her condition resulted in multiple hospitalizations. My family struggled constantly to get care from Kaiser. In April 2012, my sister experienced deterioration in her condition and called Kaiser for an appointment. Kaiser reported that the first available appointment was six weeks later. Just two weeks later, my sister committed suicide. Kaiser needs to realize that their failure to adequately staff their mental health clinics directly affects the quality of care. In my sister’s case, the consequences were fatal. Not only do patients suffer, but our families do too. Kaiser doesn’t have to live with the loss.”

“This is not only a legal and ethical issue, it’s a consumer issue,” said Elizabeth White, a psychiatric social worker at Kaiser in West Los Angeles. “Kaiser patients are simply not getting the care they pay for with their monthly premiums.”

The National Union of Healthcare Workers is a member-led, democratic movement for quality patient care and a stronger voice for workers. NUHW represents 11,000 healthcare workers throughout California, including more than 3,000 Kaiser Permanente employees.