Mental health workers strike at Kaiser

By Sheri Williams

About 4,000 members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers staged a five-day strike across California in December to push Kaiser to improve mental health care for patients and provide a fair contract for clinicians.

In Sacramento, about 325 workers went on strike, supported by union sisters and brothers from the California Nurses Association (which represents 19,000 Kaiser nurses statewide) and IUOE Stationary Engineers Local 39. Local 39 workers operate and maintain the physical plant systems of some Kaiser facilities.

NUHW members are demanding that Kaiser improve access and delivery of mental health care to its patients. According to the union, appointments can be difficult to schedule, leaving patients waiting weeks or longer.

NUHW is pushing Kaiser to hire more therapists and give them more autonomy to spend longer time with patients and have more flexibility in scheduling, according to media reports.

Union members are also working for a new contract. The previous contract expired at the end of September.

The strike drew hundreds of picketers to Kaiser facilities across the state each day. On day five in Sacramento, about 100 workers gathered at Kaiser’s South Sacramento facility.

Kaiser Psychologist Kenneth Rogers told the Sacramento Bee, “We didn’t do this for the money. We didn’t do this so the offer would improve. …We did this because there are systemic patient care concerns that we have in terms of getting our patients seen, getting enough staffing for our patients to be seen and to fix problems with recruitment and retention that the employer continues to deny. Whether or not they will address those concerns is yet to be seen.”

A Kaiser representative told media the company expects bargaining to resume soon.

Kaiser has also faced legal trouble over its mental health care. Metal health care workers filed a complaint in 2011 with the California Department of Managed Health Care that charged patients were having to wait more than 10 days for appointments, a violation of a state mandate. The agency ultimately fined Kaiser $4 million and ordered it to provide quicker care. Subsequent reviews in 2015 and 2017 found Kaiser still wasn’t providing care in the mandated time and in 2017 Kaiser agreed with the state that it would work with an outside monitor until 2020, according to media reports.

“We have not seen any meaningful improvements,” said Clem Papazian, a Kaiser licensed clinical social worker, in a press release from NUHW. “Clinicians are booked solid for weeks and patients are waiting far too long for therapy appointments. This is an untenable situation that should have ended years ago. We still want to work with Kaiser to solve this problem, but first Kaiser has to be willing to use its immense resources to truly help its patients seeking mental health treatment.”

The NUHW said Kaiser earned $3.8 billion in profit last year and $2.9 billion profit in the first nine months of 2018.

Kaiser Foundation Health Plan also recently settled a 2014 class-action lawsuit stemming from problems with mental health care, according to a report in the Bee.

Two plaintiffs alleged in a lawsuit that Kaiser psychiatrists told them their sons needed to be transferred to specialty government-run mental hospitals for treatment, but that in order to do so, they would have to drop their Kaiser insurance and go on government-run plans, according to media reports. Kaiser recently settled that suit, and will allow any other patients who were similarly told they had to leave the plan for treatment to be reinstated, according to media reports. Kaiser disputed the allegations.

NUHW said in a statement that the settlement “underscores why 4,000 mental health clinicians” went on strike.

“This settlement validates what thousands of Kaiser mental health clinicians were saying last week on picket lines across California: Kaiser is illegally denying patients appropriate mental health care, and it must work with clinicians to fix the problem,” union President Sal Rosselli said in a prepared statement to the Bee.