Kaiser mental health workers signal open strike in Northern California

A union representing 2,000 mental health workers in Kaiser, Northern California announced on August 2 plans for an open-ended strike to begin on August 15.

Among the reasons cited by union representatives: high workloads for doctors and weeks of waiting for patients or even months for mental health care. Even as the demand for care increases, frustrated therapists are abandoning the health giant, union spokesman Matt Artz said.

“We don’t take the strike lightly, but it’s time to take a stand and have Kaiser spend some billions of his money on mental health care,” Sal Rosselli, president of the National Federation of Health Care Workers, which represents physicians, said in a prepared statement.

The threat to strike is “unfortunately, a bargaining tactic that this union has used every time it negotiates a new contract,” Deb Katsavas, senior vice president at Kaiser Permanente, said in an email statement.

Calling the union’s tactics “unethical and counterproductive,” Katsavas said the two sides are “close to an agreement” and that Kaiser “is committed to bargaining in good faith for a fair and equitable agreement that is good for our therapists and patients.”

The company has come under more scrutiny by mental health services lawmakers in recent years. In May, the Department of Managed Health Care announced that it would conduct a non-routine audit of Kaiser’s mental health services.

Artes said the federation and the tsar held another negotiating session scheduled for Friday. He said mental health workers in Kaiser, Northern California, including psychologists, social workers, therapists and addiction counselors, have gone on short strike six times in the past four years. This will be their first open strike, which means that the union does not set an end date.

Artz said Kaiser has 4.6 million enrollments in Northern California, although that number does not reflect the number of those currently receiving mental health benefits.

In a letter sent Sunday to the Department of Managed Health Care, which regulates health plans, the union asked the department to ensure Kaiser continues to provide mental health care to patients during the strike, rather than cancel appointments.

Amanda Levy, deputy director of health policy and stakeholder relations for the Department of Managed Health Care, said the department continues to monitor access to services for patients affected by the strike.

“The law requires health plans to provide registrants with timely and necessary medical care and clinical standards at all times, which includes during an employee strike,” she said in an emailed statement.

Despite increased statewide efforts to enforce mental health equity laws, Kaiser mental health practitioners say they still struggle to provide adequate and timely care to patients.

Sarah Sorokin, who worked as a therapist at Kaiser Fairfield for six years, said access to treatment has worsened during her time there. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation, she said, as more patients seek care, even as more therapists leave.

“We are now in a crisis phase,” she said. “Things are worse than ever.”

Kaiser isn’t the only provider facing a shortage of mental health practitioners. Shortage complaints have also been filed by counties, school districts, and nonprofit organizations across the state. Artz said some Kaiser providers are being recruited to work for emerging telehealth companies, where the money is good and the options for working from home abound. Others enter the private clinic.

The union says the rate of Kaiser mental health physician departures nearly doubled in the past year, with 668 physicians leaving between June 2021 and May 2022, compared to 335 physicians the year before. In a union survey of 200 of these departing physicians, 85 percent said they were leaving because their workload was unsustainable or felt they did not have enough time to complete work, and 76 percent said they were unable to “treat patients in line with standards of care and medical necessity” “.

Some of these concerns are not new, although the pandemic has exacerbated them.

In 2013, the Department of Managed Health Care imposed a fine on Kaiser 4 million dollars Not providing adequate mental health treatment.

At a hearing this spring, lawmakers raised concerns about the state’s plans to move an additional 200,000 Medi-Cal members to Kaiser, due to mental health treatment issues. Democratic Senator Scott Weiner of San Francisco introduced a bill largely Increase fines on health plans that do not comply with state laws.

Another invoice from Winner, SB 221, which went into effect on July 1, aims to ensure patients do not experience long delays in pursuing treatment through commercial providers such as Kaiser. Specifically, the new law, sponsored by the union, requires patients to receive follow-up mental health care within 10 working days unless the provider determines that the long wait would not be harmful to the patient.

In a virtual press conference in late June, Kaiser mental health practitioners said the health giant was nowhere near meeting those requirements.

Jocelyn Weiner wrote about health and mental health for CalMatters, where this piece originally appeared. Email: jocelyn@calmatters.org.