LOS ANGELES (CN) – Health care clinicians across California will take to the picket lines starting Monday and throughout the week at Kaiser Permanente’s network of medical facilities due to stalled contract negotiations for mental health workers.
The union representing the approximately 4,000 health care professionals says the walkout will affect more than 100 Kaiser clinics from San Diego to San Francisco and other facilities in between.
In a statement, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) said the strike was called because they’ve been without a contract for the last year, but also to bring attention to a mental health system in which therapists are loaded with more cases than they should be asked to handle and patients are forced to wait months for appointments.
The union has gathered testimonials from over 1,000 patients at a website summarizing the difficulty in getting appointments with therapists and social workers and receiving medications. Striking workers say Kaiser has a broken mental health system that hurts patients.
Outside the South Bay Medical Center in Harbor City south of Los Angeles, psychiatric social workers Anastacio Cena and Erika Martinez rallied with about 100 of their fellow union members Monday.
Social workers like them meet with new patients seeking mental health treatment. But unlike physicians, social workers do not have caps on their caseloads, so new patients are continuously added to their roster.
Follow-up appointments can range from 2-8 weeks and even further out, Cena said – patients he sees this month will have to wait until March for their next appointment.
“I will work through my lunch sometimes,” said Cena. “I will book appointments in slots that are not meant for that type of work, because we’re trying to figure out how to work through all that.”
Martinez said patients who show signs of suicidal ideation are required to have follow-up appointments within two weeks of their first interviews with case workers under Kaiser policy.
“These are lives,” Martinez said, miming a growing stack of cases with her hands. “Each of these patients are stacked on top of each other. And you’re telling them their next appointment is so far out. But you’re responsible for that person. It’s distressing.”
Psychiatric social worker and NUHW vice president Elizabeth White said she’s expected to see 1,400 patients on a yearly basis according to Kaiser’s policies. Kaiser Permanente did not respond to the figure cited by White in an emailed statement.
Some patients may be referred to mental health services outside of the Kaiser network, but there’s no guarantee those patients will be seen.
“I really think Kaiser does not understand the nature of mental health care,” said White, adding patients overall are the ones who suffer the most.
“Many people just drop out, get worse and end up in the emergency room,” White said. “Or they lose their jobs and therefore they lose their Kaiser coverage and they slide into homelessness.”
The union says Kaiser Permanente has offered significantly compromised retirement and health benefit options.
The parties have been working with an external mediator according to Dennis Dabney, senior vice president of national labor relations and the Office of Labor Management Partnership at the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals.
In a statement, Annie Russell, chief operating officer of the Southern California Permanente Medical Group said hospitals and medical offices will remain open this week.
“This is NUHW’s sixth noticed strike within a single year. We believe that NUHW’s repeated call for short strikes is disruptive to patient access, operational care and service and is frankly irresponsible,” said Russell. “Although Kaiser Permanente will make every effort to minimize patient disruption, due to the strike we may be forced to reschedule appointments and devote valuable resources needed elsewhere in our organization to instead address the continuity of care for our members and address any urgent patient care issues.”
NUHW and Kaiser Permanente have agreed to collaborate on reinventing the medical provider’s mental health system in tentative talks, but union officials say they want the terms in writing in a new contract.
The reinvention the union wants to see includes not overloading clinicians with cases because of understaffing, improving return appointment times by adopting a ratio of 5 return appointments for every new appointment without delay, and providing crisis services in every clinic so patients can avoid hospitalization and clinicians won’t need to cancel other appointments to treat patients in desperate need of care.