Health & Medicine

Kaiser mental health workers to walk out on indefinite strike over patient care concerns

A union representing nearly 4,000 mental health workers at Kaiser Permanente announced Monday that they plan to walk out June 11 on an indefinite strike at 100-plus facilities around California if their concerns about patient care aren’t addressed.

Leaders of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which is negotiating a new labor contract, said the key sticking point is that they want their employer to sign a contract that cuts wait times and expands access for clients seeking therapy.

“We have been working between sessions on some short-term, relief-type efforts,” said Kenneth Rogers, a Kaiser psychologist, “but really the problem with us not accepting their last offer was there is no accountability for the patient care and work issues that we had addressed.”

Janet A. Liang, the president of Kaiser’s Northern California Region, and Deborah Royalty, chief administrative officer of the Permanente Medical Group, made an offer May 23 that they said would provide immediate relief to staffing shortages and constraints in appointments. They proposed to implement a number of actions in the successive 30 days, including:

  • Focusing the staff and resources of a temporary agency on crisis intake, including psychiatric nurses who would do triage.
  • Reviewing all service locations to determine whether scheduling guidelines are being met.
  • Expanding the number of recruiters trying to fill positions for mental health and wellness job openings.
  • Scheduling on-call staff for emergency rooms.
  • Providing more staff to handle scheduling to reduce the time therapists spend on this work.
  • Evaluating retention and turnover data, especially as it relates to attrition over the last two years.

“We believe these changes will make meaningful, immediate improvement in your daily office schedule,” Royal and Liang stated in their letter. “However, these actions are just the beginning, and so together we need to innovate and collaborate to design an integrated model of evidence based care that truly makes Kaiser Permanente the best place to receive care and best place to work in mental health.”

They vowed to include patients and therapists in designing the future of mental health care.

Rogers said that, while Kaiser management has shown a willingness to work with the union bargaining team to improve the time it takes for patients to get care, it has not put any meaningful offers into the contract language.

Currently, he said, the contract offer requires clinicians to keep their schedules booked 90 percent of the time, but clinicians want that reduced to 80 percent to ensure they have time to write notes; respond to patient emails; check in with minor patients’ parents, schools or social workers; or slide patients in for return visits if needed.

In a prepared news release issued Monday, Kaiser therapist Alicia Cruz said: “We can’t wait any longer to fix this problem. I work with young people who are suicidal and self-harming, and our group sessions are so crowded that children and their parents have to sit on the floor. We just don’t have the resources at our clinic to provide the services these people need.”

NUHW’s release said that the union also plans a June 12 rally for mental health parity at the state Capitol in Sacramento.

On Sunday, 3,000 Democratic Party delegates meeting at the Moscone Center in San Francisco called on Kaiser to boost clinician levels to ensure timely access and to strictly limit its use of non-Kaiser therapists who often can’t coordinate care with Kaiser doctors.

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Cathie Anderson covers health care for The Bee. Growing up, her blue-collar parents paid out of pocket for care. She joined The Bee in 2002, with roles including business columnist and features editor. She previously worked at papers including the Dallas Morning News, Detroit News and Austin American-Statesman.