OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - After a nearly five-year dispute, Kaiser Permanente and its union mental-health clinicians reached a tentative agreement to make improvements to the HMO's mental health care system.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) has long been protesting what it claims is Kaiser's chronic failure to provide patients with timely access to mental health care.
Even after Kaiser was fined $4 million last year by the California Department of Managed Health Care - after a 15-month investigation found that patients endured illegally long waiting times for appointments and that some clinicians were told to falsify appointment records to conceal the long waits - the NUHW said Kaiser took no steps to improve its mental health care services.
The dispute led to a statewide strike in January, where 2,600 participants made it the largest mental health workers' strike in national history.
NUHW had threatened another strike for Nov. 16 when it reached the tentative agreement for a three-year contract with Kaiser this past weekend, with former California state Sen. Darrell Steinberg acting as mediator.
Under the agreement, Kaiser clinicians "will be free to advocate for their patients and meet their treatment needs without threat of discipline or discharge," according to the NUHW's press release.
Kaiser fired Alex Wang in May, allegedly for writing "Patient should be seen sooner" on a patient's chart, and it is unclear whether he will be reinstated under the agreement.
The agreement also requires Kaiser to maintain a 1-to-4 ratio of new-to-return patients to ensure timely access to ongoing care.
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, said in a telephone interview that if Kaiser cannot sustain that ratio for a period of three months, the agreement will require it to hire more clinicians.
"We are in a very different position with Kaiser Permanente than we've ever been," Papazian said.
"The state isn't going away in terms of their scrutiny, and this ratio holds Kaiser's feet to the fire to honor their obligation."
Papazian said Kaiser also agreed to improve wages and benefits for clinicians "as a function of this eleventh-hour mediation," such as rescinding its proposed cuts to pension benefits.
"We still have issues with them in regard to parity with all the other represented workers at Kaiser," he said. "But it's in the right direction."
A press release from Kaiser said that the agreement "recommits [Kaiser's] ongoing efforts to continue to meet our members' needs for timely access to care."
"We greatly respect and value our therapists and mental health care workers," Gregory Adams, regional president of Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, said in the release. "This agreement is aligned with our commitment to improve our quality and affordability and to lead a 21st-century model for mental health care in the nation."
Papazian said that Kaiser's mental health workers "basically have made a financial sacrifice in addition to all their time and energy in the direction of raising the bar on this patient advocacy" by striking in January and by accepting lower wages.
After four years of no wage increases for mental-health clinicians, wages under the agreement will increase 6 percent in the first year of the contract, 4.5 percent in the second year and 4.5 percent in the third.
"That's something we feel is a huge victory," Papazian said. "These mental health workers showed tremendous flint and altruism.
"It's really been an arduous process, but it's clear that the voice of mental health workers at Kaiser is not going to be ignored or marginalized again."
NUHW members will be voting to ratify the contract over the next month.
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