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No end in sight for Kaiser mental health worker strike

Both sides have rejected each other's offers, though Kaiser says its deal remains on the table should the union want it.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Kaiser Permanente mental health care workers say they are no closer to reaching a bargain with the hospital giant despite an open-ended strike in Northern California that's entered a second month. 

National Union of Healthcare Workers spokesperson Matt Artz said bargaining talks broke down Wednesday, and Kaiser officials refused to consider proposals the union pitched to increase staffing, improve equitable access to care and stem the exodus of therapists due to workloads they say are unsustainable.

The union said the declined proposal is designed to give therapists more time to see returning patients, and cap caseloads when therapists can’t provide return appointments at a frequency required under state law. Kaiser also declined to schedule additional bargaining sessions.

Kaiser spokesperson Marc Brown said on Sept. 6 that Kaiser offered the union a proposal with “competitive annual wage increases,” a lump-sum cash payment and a retroactive cash payment of up to $6,300. 

“Our proposal also addresses the union’s demands to increase the amount of time clinicians spend on tasks other than seeing patients, increasing from the current 15% to 18% of their time,” Brown said. “We also told the union we will waive the response deadline on our last offer so that it is still available for the union to bring it to therapists.”

But the union plans to continue the strike. 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 mandating follow-up appointments within 10 business days.

NUHW also 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.

"We had two bargaining sessions last week and it was maddening," Kaiser Santa Clara therapist Chelsea Wise-Diangson said in a phone interview Wednesday. "Listening to the Kaiser officials dance around the most important issues was upsetting."

She said that currently in her field of child psychiatry, many workers are actively interviewing for other positions elsewhere intending to leave Kaiser, or have left for other jobs or clinics.

"It's.a really weird feeling to be on strike, because the loss of income definitely hurts," Wise-Diangson said.

“It’s so frustrating to be on the frontlines of a mental health crisis only to have your employer be in complete denial about it,” said Matt Hannon, a psychologist for Kaiser in South San Francisco. “Kaiser officials showed once again that they have no interest in providing timely mental health care that complies with state law or meets the needs of patients.”

Kimberly Hollingsworth-Horner, a therapist for Kaiser Fresno, blasted what she called years of shoddy care at Kaiser.

“It’s been a hard month, but going without a paycheck is nothing compared to what our patients have endured for years at Kaiser waiting months between therapy sessions," she said. “We are going to keep striking until Kaiser stops gambling with patient lives and works with therapists to create a system that provides patients the care they need to get better.”

Kaiser has been fined by state regulators for denying members timely access to care. At a state Senate committee hearing last month, the California Department of Managed Health Care’s head said Kaiser is legally required to maintain all these mental health services, including during the strike.

Deb Catsavas, Kaiser’s senior vice president of human resources, has said the hospital chain is 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. 

Other political support for the union strike has come from lawmakers like Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis, state Senate President Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

State Controller Betty Yee — who sits on the board of directors for Kaiser's largest insurance purchaser, California Public Employees' Retirement System — issued a statement saying "there is no excuse for any health plan to break the law."

She added: "The clinicians on strike at Kaiser Permanente are standing up for their patients. I join others in calling on Kaiser Permanente to resolve this strike and to match the state's commitment and investment in timely, accessible mental health care.”

But workers say they are unsure if the state's fines on Kaiser, which could go into effect in 2023, are enough. The union claims Kaiser reported an $8.1 billion net profit last year with $54 billion in reserves.

"I hope they'll make Kaiser face some actual consequences," Wise-Diangson said. "These fines are chump change to them — we want to see much bigger fines, we want to see sanctions. If all they have to do is write a check to make this go away, they're more than happy to do that."

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