Mental health parity bill advances as Kaiser bargaining gets underway

Kaiser IBHSJuly 28, 2021

As contract negotiations began this month for NUHW members who provide mental health services at Kaiser Permanente, our bill to improve access to mental health care cleared another major hurdle in the state legislature.

Following a hearing, Democrats and Republicans on the State Assembly’s Health Committee unanimously passed SB 221 by a vote of 14-0 despite strenuous opposition from the healthcare industry. The bill, which already passed the State Senate, is expected to head to a vote of the full Assembly next month before heading to Governor Gavin Newsom, who could sign it into law.

SB 221 would close a loophole that requires HMOs and insurers to offer patients initial mental health and substance use disorder appointments within 10 days, but allows them to make patients wait weeks or months for follow-up appointments. The bill, authored by State Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco, would require HMOs and insurers to offer patients follow-up appointments within 10 business days, unless the treating clinicians certify that a longer gap will not harm the patients’ health.

Legislators at the July 6 hearing rejected claims from industry lobbyists that California did not have enough therapists to provide timely care.

“There is a workforce out there,” said Assemblymember Jim Wood, the committee chair. “I can’t think of anything more discouraging than to get that [initial] timely access in 10 days and then be told you have to wait six to eight weeks for the next appointment.”

NUHW members have been advocating for SB 221, meeting with legislators and explaining the challenges they face in providing timely mental health care. As bargaining with Kaiser kicked off in Northern California on July 22, our bargaining team introduced a Staffing, Access and Workload proposal that would provide a framework for Kaiser to comply with SB 221 and finally provide timely mental health care. Our proposal would require Kaiser to:

  • Hire additional staff if/when it cannot consistently offer return appointments within 10 business days. Individual providers would not be obligated to schedule new appointments whenever return access goes beyond 10 business days.
  • Establish a joint labor/management staffing committee to review all staffing plans and settle disputes over staffing levels, with the ability to arbitrate if the parties cannot agree on a resolution.
  • Ensure that at least half of Kaiser clinicians would have the opportunity to work from home on an ongoing basis.

Kaiser management listened attentively to our bargaining committee members as they shared their struggles to provide timely care amid increasing demand and unsustainable workloads. A response from management is expected as bargaining resumes in August.