Mental Health Specialists Strike Over Staffing, Resource Issues At Kaiser Permanente

By Paul Gaita 12/11/18

Approximately 4,000 mental health specialists are expected to strike over Kaiser Permanente's lack of mental health staff and resources in California.

Mental Health Specialists began a 5-day strike in California over issues with Kaiser Permanente
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Thousands of mental health workers began a five-day strike on December 10, 2018 to protest what they view as shortages in patient resources at Kaiser Permanente facilities across California.

Approximately 4,000 psychologists, therapists, nurses and addiction specialists are expected to picket the non-profit HMO's medical centers in Sacramento, Modesto, Stockton and other locations in an attempt to demand increased staffing for mental health patients, whom the union claims often have to wait more than a month for appointments due to a lack of medical professionals.

Kaiser Permanente condemned the strike as "disheartening," especially at the holidays, when patients may need more mental health assistance.

The strike was organized by the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which has reportedly been locked in conflict with Kaiser for years. At the heart of the union's concerns is what they described in a statement as a "long history of forcing patients to endure extensive waits for therapy appointments."

The union cited a 2013 fine imposed on Kaiser by the California Department of Managed Health Care (DHMC) for violating the state's Mental Health Parity Act, which requires insurers to provide equal coverage for physical and mental health conditions and Timely Access to Care standards, which limits wait time for access to care. The statement also claimed that in 2017, the DHMC required Kaiser to accept outside monitoring of its mental health services.

Though Kaiser patients can now see physicians within state-appointed timeframes, the union stated that many have to wait one month or more for a follow-up appointment. It also claimed that 1/3 of patients in Southern California are sent out of Kaiser's network for therapy and must find quality, affordable treatment on their own while dealing with what the union said are serious mental health issues. Addressing these concerns would require the HMO to reduce follow-up wait times for appointments, the number of patients sent to non-Kaiser treatment and balance the number of returning patients to intake patients.

"When you delay treatment appointments, it substantially delays recovery times, and it increases morbidity rates and mortality rates," said Fred Seavey, the union's research director, to USA Today. "It has huge implications for people's lives . . . It has impacts on their incomes, their families and their relationships with loved ones."

In response to the union's claims, Josh Nelson, vice president of communications at Kaiser, called the strike "completely unnecessary" and pointed to a 30% increase in the number of mental health professionals statewide since 2015 as evidence of its compliance with patient needs. "When necessary, we contract with community providers to further ensure its members have access to the care they need," he added.

A statement from Michelle Gaskill-Hames, chief nurse executive for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, claimed that the strike was "particularly disheartening" during the holidays, "when many of our patients with mental health needs may be at their most vulnerable." But Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane is galled by the notion that Kaiser would decry a five-day strike as harmful to patients.

Zane's husband struggled with anxiety and depression and sought treatment with Kaiser therapists in 2010. He was instead sent to an anxiety group and finally saw a therapist in late December of that year. After two appointments, the therapist told him that he was ineligible for a follow-up for two months. Three days later, Zane's husband took his own life.

Zane, who told USA Today that Kaiser asked her to remain neutral in the strike, said, "They're making the point that somehow or other, this is irresponsible for therapists to leave their patients for five friggin' days. They could put a patient on a five-week waiting list and not blink an eye, and then they're worried about five days?

"My husband's dead, my kids don't have a father, my grandkids don't have a grandfather," she said. "I'm glad these therapists are striking."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.