Kaiser Permanente’s mental health workers began a weeklong strike Monday to protest staffing levels at the health provider’s facilities in Sacramento and statewide.
The strike includes psychologists, therapists and social workers represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which said its members would be on picket lines at more than 35 Kaiser locations in California.
Protesters with picket signs marched outside the Kaiser hospital on Morse Avenue on Monday and were expected to return Tuesday. The union said it will also have picketers Wednesday at Kaiser’s Roseville medical center on Eureka Road and on Thursday and Friday at its south Sacramento medical center on Bruceville Road.
Similar protests were planned at Kaiser facilities in Stockton, Modesto and Fresno this week.
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Kaiser said the walkout will not affect patient care. Any patient who comes to the hospital with a crisis or other urgent need will have their needs met, said John Nelson, Kaiser vice president of government relations. Hospitals already have contacted patients who had appointments scheduled for this week to see if they could be rescheduled.
“We also asked our therapists if they intended to walk out, and, if so, if they would give a sense of what their patients’ needs would be for the week to match them up with existing (nonunion) staff,” such as managers who are licensed therapists, Nelson said.
The NUHW claims that Kaiser does not staff its mental health departments with enough clinicians to treat patient rolls that have grown since the launch of the federal Affordable Care Act, which required individuals to have health insurance coverage. Kaiser has not hired enough staff to handle the larger patient load, the union says.
“We don’t want to see patients being ignored,” said Clement Papazian, a clinical social worker at Kaiser in Oakland and president of NUHW’s Northern California chapter of mental health clinicians, in a news release. “Kaiser’s actions are doing real harm.”
In response, Kaiser officials said it has hired hundreds of therapists in California during the past several years and is working to hire more. Kaiser officials said it increased the number of therapists by 25 percent from 2011 to 2014, even as patient load increased by 8 percent.
Nelson, the Kaiser spokesman, also said last week’s contract bargaining session with NUHW was productive.
“We hope that they come back to work,” he said. “We made it clear that we are ready to bargain any time.”
In September, Kaiser agreed to pay a $4 million fine to California’s overseer of managed health care following an 18-month battle with state officials over whether Kaiser prevented patients from getting timely access to mental health services. Kaiser has called the penalty amount “unwarranted, excessive and disproportionate.”
Ann Amato, a Kaiser therapist at the Morse Avenue hospital, was picketing outside the facility on Monday. She said therapists care about their patients and have fought for years to get more staffing.
“We are way understaffed,” she said. “We are worried about patient safety, and Kaiser is more worried about profit.”
Kaiser said that NUHW has spent the past several years attacking Kaiser’s health plan, while resisting steps to enhance mental health care.
“NUHW is a small California union representing fewer than 5,000 of Kaiser Permanente’s 175,000 employees,” a Kaiser news release stated. “Since its creation in 2009, it has never negotiated a contract with Kaiser Permanente. In fact, NUHW stands alone as the only union that has been unwilling or unable to reach a fair agreement concerning a contract covering our employees during that time.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Lindelof, (916) 321-1079. Bee staff writer Hudson Sangree contributed to this report.