SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Striking Kaiser Permanente health-care clinicians hoisted signs saying "No More Suicides" and "Patients Before Profits" as they hit picket lines at Kaiser's San Francisco hospital on Geary Boulevard Monday morning.
It was the first day of a week-long statewide strike in California by 2,600 of Kaiser's mental health clinicians to protest what they call Kaiser's chronic failure to provide patients with timely, quality mental health care.
The strike, organized by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, is the nation's largest-ever mental health workers' strike. It will take place at 35 Kaiser outlets throughout California.
Monday's picket line in San Francisco consisted of about 250 clinicians, union president Sal Rosselli told Courthouse News.
The union claimed in an undated report that Kaiser systemically understaffs its psychiatry departments, resulting in illegally long waiting times for appointments, occasionally with consequences as tragic as patient suicides.
The union claimed that Kaiser has occasionally falsified patients' records to conceal the long wait times.
Margaret Wilson, a Kaiser psychologist at the San Francisco facility who picketed on Monday, told Courthouse News that Kaiser's practices limit clinicians' abilities to care for their patients.
"We can't provide the intensity of treatments that we'd like to," Wilson said.
Jim Beauford, another psychologist at Kaiser's San Francisco office, said that the psychiatry department is "definitely understaffed."
"The wait times are ridiculous," he said.
Another Kaiser San Francisco clinician, who wished to remain anonymous, said that often, after their first appointments, Kaiser's mental health patients are not able to get back in for follow-ups.
"The wait times just get stretched out further and further," she said. "This is a dedicated group of clinicians, and we can't provide the care we want to provide."
California's Department of Managed Health Care fined Kaiser $4 million in 2013 for violations of California's timely access laws. Kaiser agreed to pay the fine in September 2014.
But Kaiser has not taken steps to improve the problems, the union says.
Rosselli said the strike is a necessary effort to "shed the light" on Kaiser's harmful practices.
"This is a staffing scandal that's been going on since 2010," he said. "We need to get support from the community and the government to force Kaiser to change."
Kaiser said in a statement that it has contingency plans in place for the strike and was "disappointed" to receive the strike notice.
Kaiser said the strike communicates that the union is more interested in "disrupting care" than it is in "bargaining constructively."
But one Kaiser nurse supervisor, who has been a union representative for decades, told Courthouse News that the strike was long in coming.