Union Protests Kaiser's Firing of Whistleblower
OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - Kaiser Permanente fired a psychologist who blew the whistle on the HMO's pattern of unlawful delays in providing mental health care according to the National Union of Healthcare Workers, whose members plan to picket the healthcare giant.
The allegedly retaliatory firing of Alex Wang occurred after a years-long dispute between Kaiser and its mental health clinicians, which culminated in the nation's largest mental-health workers' strike in January.
Wang - who had been vocal about Kaiser's mental-health care deficiencies and reported them to state regulators - said in a telephone interview that management first began to target him when in 2013 he wrote "Patient should be seen sooner" on a patient's chart after he learned that the patient would wait more than three weeks for a first-time appointment.
According to a statement by the union, Kaiser disciplined Wang on the basis that the note was "political speech," and for the next two years needlessly scrutinized Wang's work and questioned his clinical judgment.
Kaiser fired Wang fired on April 9 of this year.
Wang said that clinicians are usually fired in cases of gross negligence, ethical violations or if their treatment leads to bad outcomes - a patient's death, for example - but he said his record contains no such blots.
"Essentially, my case is not that unusual from what's happening to other stewards and staff who are speaking out in terms of access issues," Wang said. "Management has been looking for reasons to fire or harass people that speak out about patient care."
He said he knows of other clinicians who have been vocal on the issue whom Kaiser has pressured into early retirement.
California's Department of Managed Health Care fined Kaiser $4 million in 2013 for delaying appointment times for mental-health patients, understaffing its psychiatry departments and falsifying patients' appointment records to conceal the long wait times.
Clement Papazian, a licensed clinical social worker at Kaiser's Oakland facility and president of the NUHW's Northern California chapter of mental-health clinicians, told Courthouse News that the union's members have been dealing with retaliatory practices "pretty much from the inception of this controversy."
After 26 years with Kaiser, Papazian said it was not until four years ago that he started coming under scrutiny for "minor ridiculous things," like using a company fax machine for a personal task.
"There's not so much as a hint of a shadow on our work record, but the second we get vocal about patient care we come under scrutiny," he said.
Andris Skuja, a Kaiser psychologist in Oakland, said in a telephone interview that he has been subjected to similar investigations, after being at Kaiser for 30 years and receiving numerous accolades for his work.
He said management took "corrective action" against him for "incidental things that everybody does all the time."
"It's preposterous that a professional would even look at some of these things," Skuja said.
Kaiser said in a statement that Wang's firing was not an act of retaliation.
"We can say unequivocally that we did not retaliate against Dr. Wang or any other mental-health clinician," the company said.
The HMO also said that it cannot discuss Wang's specific personnel action, but a five-step correction process applies to all NUHW-represented clinicians when performance or behavioral issues arise.
"It is unfortunate that, in the difficult bargaining environment we are in, personnel matters are mischaracterized to leverage the union's bargaining position," Kaiser said.
Papazian said that the atmosphere among Kaiser's mental health clinicians in the wake of Wang's firing - on top of what the union says is Kaiser's continued failure to improve its mental health care services - is "tense."
"I would be lying if I didn't say that people were frustrated and incredibly overwhelmed with the length of time that this is all taking," he said.
Clinicians are also fed up with Kaiser's "contrast between the rhetoric and the action that's being mounted against them," Papazian said.
"On the one hand, we're being told that we're valued employees," he said. "On the other, we feel like we're being punished by the organization for bringing to their attention something they should have dealt with years ago."
Skuja said that Kaiser has "lost its ethical compass."
"They're violating professional ethics and their own compliance and retaliation policies," he said. "That's kind of evidence of a basic ethical failure, an organizational and institutional ethical failure."
This failure is all the more troubling in light of Kaiser's recent significant profits, Skuja said. According to a report by the union, Kaiser has made $14.5 billion since 2009, and this year's profits are up 40 percent from last year.
Papazian said that the whole controversy has felt "tedious."
"Not a day passes that Kaiser doesn't come out with some kind of document or award that says they're leaders or stellar care providers," he said. "The hypocrisy of that is so staggering from our perspective."
Kaiser's deficiencies are especially tragic because the HMO is positioned to be a leader in the country on the issue, Skuja said.
"They get a lot of things right," he said. "But not in mental health. That's really a backwater. We are determined to call them out on that."
Wang said that although his firing has naturally affected him personally, it has most significantly affected his patients.
"My patients are really the ones who have borne the brunt of all this," he said. "They've been kept in the dark. They're trying to make appointments and they can't. I don't know if they even know that I've been fired."
Clinicians will picket Kaiser facilities throughout California until the end of this week.