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Mental health workers on strike at hospital giant Kaiser

Kaiser's mental health workers claim conditions are so poor the hospital can't retain or attract therapists.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (CN) — Thousands of mental health care workers kicked off a strike with no end date across Northern California on Monday over what they say is deliberate understaffing as the number of patients needing care skyrockets. 

Workers marching outside the Kaiser clinic in San Francisco on Geary Boulevard were frequently greeted by honks from passing drivers, as they chanted demanding the health plan respond to urgent needs. Members of the National Medical Healthcare Workers Union hit the picket lines at clinics throughout the north state including Sacramento and Fresno.

“It’s not sustainable, Kaiser doesn’t have enough therapists in their psychiatry department," clinical social worker Wendy Blank said. She described a system that refers patients to contracted organizations that do not have therapists available, leaving patients coming back to Kaiser to find they have no options available.

Psychologist Julie Lanoff said after 20 years at Kaiser, she can’t see how much longer she can take it, watching patients treated for addiction at Oakland receiving two months of intensive care rather than two years. She said Kaiser needs to be investigated for how it treats therapists and why it is struggling to retain them.

“We’re told we don’t have the staff, we don’t have the resources,” she said. “It’s unacceptable. I think if we were not striking, we would be complicit in what we all know is happening.”

Health care workers Julie Lanoff, left, and Wendy Blank strike at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 15, 2022. (Natalie Hanson/ Courthouse News)

Union spokesperson Matt Artz said mental health care workers face unrelenting caseloads, with patients waiting at least one month between therapy appointments in violation of a state law requiring follow-up appointments within 10 business days.

NUHW said Kaiser has been canceling thousands of appointments — sharing emails from Bay Area counties where doctors refused to book patients, canceled appointments or said they could not check in on existing clients during the strike.

“The emails we've obtained from Kaiser managers show a stunning callousness toward Kaiser patients and disregard for California’s mental health parity laws that require Kaiser to deliver services even during a strike,” NUHW President Sal Rosselli said. 

The union filed a complaint with state regulators Thursday demanding they “take urgent action to enforce California law” to protect 4.6 million enrollees.

Kaiser faces a state investigation following an increase in patient complaints last year, after the American Psychological Society told state regulators Kaiser's wait times were the worst it had seen. The health plan has been under investigation for its practices before, once fined by state regulators for denying members timely access to care and sued by local prosecutors

The union claims Kaiser reported an $8.1 billion net profit last year with $54 billion in reserves but staffs “just one full-time equivalent mental health clinician for every 2,600 members in Northern California.” But Deb Catsavas, Kaiser’s senior vice president of human resources, said in a statement they are still bargaining with NUHW and claimed the strike is part of “harmful tactics” by the union affecting negotiations.

Catsavas said Kaiser has hired nearly 200 clinicians since January 2021, embedded mental health care services into primary care and launched a $500,000 initiative to recruit new clinicians. They said the strike has impeded the ability to address patient needs and “some non-urgent appointments may need to be rescheduled.”

“The reality is that strikes, like the union’s proposal to reduce time for direct patient care, will only reduce access to our care, at a time of unprecedented demand,” Catsavas said. 

However, at a state Senate committee hearing this past week, the California Department of Managed Health Care’s head said Kaiser is legally required to maintain all mental health services during the strike.

“Strike or no strike, as the regulator, we are going to hold them accountable to the law,” director Mary Watanabe told members of the Senate Select Committee on Mental Health and Addiction. “The law allows no flexibility during a strike.”

“State regulators are asking exactly the right questions,” Rosselli said. “Now they have to make sure that Kaiser not only provides the right answers, but that they thoroughly comply with the law.”

Lanoff said she thinks Governor Gavin Newsom should lead the charge to thoroughly investigate Kaiser’s practices in hiring and retention, and whether it has avoided meeting standards under SB 221.

“Yes they’ve hired so many new therapists, but how many have left?” she said. “We can’t get people to apply for jobs. What does that say about Kaiser?”

Health care workers strike at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 15, 2022. (Natalie Hanson/ Courthouse News)

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