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Kaiser agrees to boost mental health staff

A long and bitter fight ended Sunday between health care giant Kaiser Permanente and the union that represents its psychologists, family therapists and mental health social workers.

The agreement, reached late Sunday, was mediated by former Senate president pro tem Darrell Steinberg, who is running for Sacramento mayor. It averted a strike scheduled for Monday.

Both sides tentatively agreed to a new contract that would add 500 more mental health workers to Kaiser’s staff as a way of reducing patients’ wait times for appointments. Kaiser has been criticized by union members and fined by state officials in recent years for the long times patients must wait for mental health services.

“That’s what the fight’s been about for nearly five years,” since the last contract lapsed, said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

Kaiser said the agreement includes a 6 percent pay increase in the contract’s first year followed by 4.5 percent raises in each of the next two years. Those covered by the contract haven’t received raises in four years, Kaiser said in a news release. Another provision requires mental health workers to contribute toward their health benefits, “just as the vast majority of Americans, including our patients, already do,” it said.

“We greatly respect and value our therapists and mental health care workers,” Gregory Adams, regional president of Kaiser Permanente for Northern California, said in the statement. “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.”

Both sides thanked Steinberg, who stepped in at the last minute as a mediator and worked long hours over the weekend to help broker a deal. Steinberg has been a longtime advocate for mental health services, including authoring Proposition 63, which imposed a 1 percent tax for mental health services on those making $1 million a year or more.

The tentative agreement must still be approved by a vote of the union’s 1,400 members in Northern California. A similar contract is expected to be worked about between Kaiser and a separate bargaining unit of roughly 1,500 mental health clinicians in Southern California, union officials said.

Rosselli said a key feature of the new contract is Kaiser’s agreement to establish what he called an “unprecedented” ratio of one new patient visit to four repeat visits. Kaiser previously sought to meet state requirements by increasing the number of first-time visits, which made it harder to schedule repeat visits with booked-up therapists, the union president said.

In 2013, the state Department of Managed Health Care fined Kaiser $4 million for problems that included long wait lists to see mental health professionals, duplicate sets of records with contradictory information about how long patients had to wait for an appointment, and “inaccurate educational materials” for patients that discouraged them from seeking medically necessary care.

The department also found that Kaiser was likely violating state and federal mental health parity laws. The California Mental Health Parity Act requires managed care providers to provide psychiatric services that are equal in quality and access to their primary care services.

Kaiser disagreed with the findings. It sought for 18 months to reduce the fine, but finally agreed last year to pay it in full.

Hudson Sangree: 916-321-1191, @hudson_sangree

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