April 15, 2024

Thursday marks one month since over 2,000 Kaiser Permanente mental health care workers went on strike to demand increased staffing and improved access to care for patients who sometimes must wait months for therapy appointments.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers said in a statement that Kaiser refused to consider their proposal to improve conditions for health care workers and patients during negotiations Wednesday night.

“It’s so frustrating to be on the frontlines of a mental health crisis only to have your employer be in complete denial about it,” said Matt Hannon, a psychologist for Kaiser in South San Francisco and a member of the union’s bargaining committee. “Kaiser officials showed once again that they have no interest in providing timely mental health care that complies with state law or meets the needs of patients.”

NUHW had proposed that Kaiser consider increasing staffing that would alleviate “unsustainable” workloads that the union says has led to high turnover among mental health care workers at the HMO.

Among the proposals denied on Wednesday night was the workers’ demand for more time to see returning patients and a cap on caseloads so therapists could provide return appointments at a frequency required by state law.

The mental health parity law, Senate Bill 221, went into effect in July and requires health insurers to provide return appointments for mental health and substance use patients no more than 10 days after a previous session.

The American Psychological Association recommends weekly therapy for people with depression — double that for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

This month-long strike is over patient care. Kaiser therapists want the organization to provide the same level of care to mental health as it does for medical services, according to an NUHW statement.

Striking therapists have now missed multiple paychecks as they hold firm on their conditions.

“We are going to keep striking until Kaiser stops gambling with patient lives and works with therapists to create a system that provides patients the care they need to get better,” said Kimberly Hollingsworth-Horner, a therapist for Kaiser in Fresno.

Hollingsworth-Horner, who also works on the bargaining committee, said that going without pay for a month has been “hard,” but “nothing” compared to months-long wait times between therapy sessions that patients have endured for years.

California fined Kaiser $4 million in 2013 for delayed and denied mental health care, but wait times for mental health care have not improved.

NUHW said on a fact sheet regarding the strike that Kaiser has failed to increase staffing despite a surge in demand for mental health care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, Kaiser seems to be hemorrhaging clinicians: the union says that 377 have left the company between June 2021 and May 2022 in the Northern California region. Over 660 have quit, companywide.

An NUHW survey of more than 200 departing clinicians found that 80 percent found their workloads unsustainable and 70 percent cited the inability to “treat patients in line with standards of care and medical necessity.”

Rather than quit, the clinicians on the picket lines are working to change the way that Kaiser manages its mental health department.

Melody Bumgardner, a psychologist who works at Kaiser Santa Clara and the Campbell satellite, has worked for Kaiser for 22 years and said that the organization had better work conditions in her first decade working there, but that conditions and turnover have worsened in recent years.

“When I first began working here, we used to be fully staffed,” Bumgardner said at the picket line outside Kaiser San Jose on Thursday. “It used to be hard to get a job at Kaiser. People wanted to work here and people stayed a long time. But in the last 10 years, the majority of people that start usually leave before they’ve even been here three or five years.”

Bumgardner said that she has stayed with the company for so long because she values working with the “diverse population” of patients she sees and the relationships she has built with colleagues over the last two decades. She also wants to see real change, for Kaiser to use its “tremendous resources” to provide much timely mental health services to its members.

“We’re standing up to Kaiser with this strike and we’re standing up for patients who have been denied adequate mental health care for far too long,” said Jeffrey Chen-Harding, a licensed clinical social worker for Kaiser in San Francisco.

Despite the Wednesday stalemate, Kaiser has declined to schedule additional bargaining sessions with the union and there are no further talks currently scheduled. Officials with Kaiser were not immediately available to comment on the latest negotiations with the union.

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