Kaiser still in denial over patient suicides

March 15th, 2019

by Sal Rosselli
NUHW President

Seong and David Brown have lived every parents’ nightmare. One summer, their brilliant, beautiful teenage daughter, Elizabeth, returned home from college and confided that she was having panic attacks and cutting herself.

Their nightmare only got worse when they tried to get Elizabeth mental health therapy from their HMO, Kaiser Permanente. After Elizabeth’s initial appointment, her parents were told she would have to wait at least six weeks to see the therapist again. When the family couldn’t get appointments from a list of outside therapists contracted through Kaiser, they started paying out-of-pocket for private therapy.

“The whole system is set up as just one big battle,” Seong Brown told CalMatters in a story detailing Elizabeth’s struggle with mental illness and eventual suicide. “You’re just sad and exhausted from dealing with a family member with mental illness. And then you have to deal with everybody else.”

As president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, I met Seong Brown in December when she addressed hundreds of our Kaiser psychologists, therapists, and social workers who were on strike to make Kaiser fully staff its clinics and finally fix its mental health services to avert more tragedies.

Since then Seong has become a champion for making insurers treat mental illnesses, like depression and bi-polar disorder, with the same urgency as physical illnesses like cancer and diabetes. Sadly, Kaiser, the nation’s largest HMO, is still in denial about its mental health services that have failed far too many of its patients.

In negotiations, Kaiser has rejected every one of our union’s proposals to improve staffing and speed up appointment availabilities so patients don’t have to wait up to two months to see their therapists.

Kaiser executives see no issue with the fact that they employ just one full-time equivalent mental health clinician for every 3,000 patients enrolled in their California health plans – the same ratio as in 2015. They are unmoved by a survey last year that found 87 percent of Kaiser mental health clinicians reported that their patients could not get appointments within a clinically appropriate timeframe.

In fact, one Kaiser executive quoted in the CalMatters story had the gall to claim, “I really don’t think there’s anyone else that can match up in terms of what we’re doing. We’re really trying to lead the nation, truly.”

The executive neglected to note that Kaiser has failed its last three State of California mental health surveys and remains under state-ordered outside monitoring of its mental health services.

If Kaiser really wants to lead the nation on mental health, it needs to start listening to its clinicians and people like Seong Brown who have endured its failings.

Elizabeth Brown, who was diagnosed with bi-polar and borderline personality disorders, never received the intensive one-on-one therapy she sought from Kaiser. She never got Kaiser to enroll her in an intensive inpatient treatment program.

“It became pretty apparent that we were going to be on our own,” David Brown said in this video our union made with the Browns.

Seong and David Brown are only just beginning their fight to make Kaiser provide timely, adequate mental health care. Seong is preparing to testify on behalf of SB11, a bill from State Senator Jim Beall that would strengthen California’s Mental Health Parity Act. And we are working with legislators to further strengthen that and other pieces of legislation to improve access to mental health care and make insurers disclose whether they are following mental health parity laws.

We still have a long way to go, but working together we’ll finally reach a day when there are no more Kaiser suicides.