Kaiser Mental Health Strike: Today, the union representing Kaiser Northern California’s 2,000 mental health workers announced an indefinite strike on August 15. High clinician workloads and long wait times of weeks or months for mental health care were cited as reasons by union representatives. Union spokesman Matt Artz said that despite a rise in patient demand for therapy, many therapists are leaving the health giant because of frustrations with their working conditions.
When asked about the strike, Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents the clinicians, said in a prepared statement, “We don’t take striking lightly, but it’s time to take a stand and make Kaiser spend some of its billions on mental health care.”
Kaiser Permanente’s senior vice president Deb Catsavas said in an email that threatening a strike is “sadly, a bargaining tactic this union has used every time it has bargained a new contract.” Catsavas claimed the two sides were “close to an agreement” and that Kaiser is “committed to bargaining in good faith to reach a fair and equitable agreement that is good for our therapists and our patients,” while calling the union’s tactics “unethical and counterproductive.”
In recent years, the company’s mental health services have come under increased scrutiny from lawmakers. The Department of Managed Health Care announced in May that it would conduct a special audit of Kaiser’s mental health services. According to Artz, Friday is the last bargaining session between the union and Kaiser.
He claimed that in the past four years, there had been a total of six strikes by mental health professionals at Kaiser Northern California. These professionals include psychologists, social workers, therapists, and addiction counselors. This would be the first time the union has gone on strike without setting a specific end date.
In Northern California, Kaiser serves 4.6 million people, according to Artz, but this number does not include the number of people who are currently making use of Kaiser’s mental health services. Kaiser should not cancel mental health appointments for patients during the strike, the union argued in a letter sent Sunday to the Department of Managed Health Care, which oversees health plans.
The Department of Managed Health Care is keeping an eye on service availability for strike-affected patients, according to Amanda Levy, its deputy director for health policy and stakeholder relations. In an email, she explained that even during a strike, health plans must provide all enrollees with timely access to clinically appropriate care.
Kaiser mental health professionals report continuing difficulties meeting patients’ needs on time, despite growing state efforts to enforce mental health parity laws. Sarah Sorokin, a therapist who has worked at Kaiser Fairfield for six years, has observed a decline in patient accessibility during her tenure. She explained that the pandemic has made matters worse because more people are seeking treatment at a time when fewer therapists are available.
It’s not just Kaiser struggling to find qualified mental health professionals to hire. Counties, school districts, and nonprofits all over the state have voiced concerns about a lack of resources. Artz claims that some Kaiser doctors are leaving for telehealth startups because of the better pay and more flexible schedules. Some others are venturing into solo practice.
According to the union, between June 2021 and May 2022, the number of mental health clinicians leaving Kaiser nearly doubled from the previous year, from 335 to 668. Two hundred of the departing clinicians were polled by their union, and 86% of them said they were leaving because their workload was unsustainable or they did not have enough time to complete the work, while 76% said they were unable to “treat patients in line with standards of care and medical necessity.”
Some of these worries have existed before the pandemic, but the latter has made them much more pressing. Kaiser was hit with a $4 million fine in 2013 for inadequate mental health care services provided by the Department of Managed Health Care. This spring, hearings revealed that legislators were concerned about the state’s plans to transfer an additional 200,000 Medi-Cal members to Kaiser due to issues with mental health treatment.
— Modern Healthcare (@modrnhealthcr) August 13, 2022
San Francisco Democrat Scott Wiener has introduced legislation to significantly increase penalties for health plans that are noncompliant with state regulations. SB 221, another Wiener bill, went into effect on July 1 and aims to prevent patients from waiting too long for follow-up care from commercial providers like Kaiser. More specifically.
The new law mandating mental health follow-up care must be implemented within 10 business days unless a provider determines that a longer wait will not be detrimental to the patient. Late in June, at a virtual press conference, mental health professionals employed by Kaiser said the health care giant was near meeting those standards.