The union, which represents 2,000 mental health facilities in Kaiser Northern California, announced plans to go on strike, citing the heavy workload and long wait times for patients.
A union representing 2,000 psychiatric workers from Kaiser Northern California this morning announced plans for an indefinite strike beginning August 15.
Among the reasons cited by union officials are the heavy workloads of clinicians and patients who wait weeks or even months for psychiatric care. Though demand for care has soared, frustrated therapists are leaving the healthcare giant, union spokesman Matt Artz said.
“We don’t take strikes lightly,” said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents clinicians, in a prepared statement, “but it’s time to take a stand and get Kaiser to spending some of his billions on mental health care.”
Deb Catsavas, senior vice president at Kaiser Permanente, said in an email statement that the threat of a strike “is unfortunately a negotiation tactic that this union has used every time it has negotiated a new contract.”
Calling the union’s tactics “unethical and counterproductive,” Catsavas said the two sides are “close to an agreement” and that Kaiser has a “good faith obligation to reach a fair and equitable settlement that is good for our therapists and our patients.” is. ”
The company has faced increased scrutiny from lawmakers for its mental health services in recent years. In May, the Department of Managed Health Care announced it would conduct a non-routine audit of Kaiser’s mental health services.
Union and Kaiser have planned another round of negotiations for Friday, said Artz. He said that Kaiser Northern California’s psychiatric staff, including psychologists, social workers, therapists and addiction counselors, had gone on short-term strikes six times in the past four years. This would be their first indefinite strike, meaning the union is not setting an end date.
Kaiser has 4.6 million enrollments in Northern California, Artz said, although that number doesn’t reflect how many are currently accessing its mental health benefits.
In a letter sent Sunday to the Department of Managed Health Care, which regulates health plans, the union called on the department to ensure Kaiser continued to provide mental health care to patients during the strike, rather than canceling appointments.
Amanda Levy, associate director for health policy and stakeholder relations at the Department of Managed Health Care, said the department continues to monitor access to services for patients affected by the strike.
“The law requires health plans to provide participants with medically necessary care within timely access and clinical standards at all times, including during a staff strike,” she said in an emailed statement.
Despite growing efforts at the state level to enforce mental health parity laws, Kaiser’s psychotherapists say they still struggle to provide appropriate and timely care to patients.
Sarah Soroken, who has been a therapist at Kaiser Fairfield for six years, said access to treatment has deteriorated during her time there. She said the pandemic has made the situation worse, with more patients seeking help even as more therapists are leaving.
“Right now we are at a crisis point,” she said. “Things are worse than ever.”
Kaiser isn’t the only provider facing a shortage of psychiatrists. Complaints about shortages have also been raised by counties, school districts, and nonprofit organizations across the state. Artz said some Kaiser providers are being recruited to work at telemedicine startups, where the money is good and there are many opportunities to work from home. Others enter private practice.
“We are at a crisis point at the moment. Things are worse than ever.”
The union says the rate at which psychiatric clinicians are leaving Kaiser has nearly doubled over the past year, with 668 clinicians leaving the company between June 2021 and May 2022, compared to 335 clinicians a year earlier. In a union survey of 200 of these outgoing clinicians, 85 percent said they left because their workload was unsustainable or they felt they didn’t have enough time to complete work, and 76 percent said they weren’t in able to “treat patients according to standards of care and medical necessity.”
Some of these concerns are not new, although the pandemic has exacerbated them.
In 2013, the Department of Managed Health Care fined Kaiser $4 million for failing to provide adequate mental health treatment.
In a hearing this spring, lawmakers raised concerns about the state’s plans to relocate an additional 200,000 Medi-Cal members to Kaiser over problems with mental health care. Democratic Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco has introduced legislation to significantly increase fines for health plans that violate state laws.
Another bill from Wiener, SB 221, which went into effect July 1, aims to ensure patients don’t face lengthy delays in aftercare from commercial providers like Kaiser. Specifically, the new law, sponsored by the union, requires patients to receive continued mental health care within 10 working days unless a provider determines that a longer wait is not detrimental to the patient.
At a virtual press conference in late June, Kaiser’s psychiatrists said the healthcare giant was nowhere near meeting those requirements.