Kaiser mental health workers announce walkout in California

In summary

The union representing 2,000 Kaiser Northern California mental health works announced strike plans, citing heavy workloads and long waits for patients.


A union representing 2,000 Kaiser Northern California mental health workers announced this morning plans for an indefinite strike beginning August 15.

Among the reasons that the union representatives mentioned: the high workload of the doctors and the weeks of waiting for the patients or even months for mental health care. Even as demand for care has increased, frustrated therapists are leaving the healthcare giant, said Matt Artz, a spokesman for the union.

“We don’t take strikes lightly,” said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Health Care Workers, which represents doctors, in a prepared statement, “but it’s time to take a stand and get Kaiser to spend some of their billions in mental health care.”

CalMatters has reached out to Kaiser for comment. In the past, the health plan has pointed to the physician shortage as an ongoing challenge.

The company has drawn increased scrutiny from lawmakers for its mental health services in recent years. In May, the Department of Managed Health Care announced that it would conduct a non-routine audit of Kaiser’s mental health services.

The union and Kaiser have one more bargaining session planned for Friday, Artz said. He said Kaiser Northern California mental health workers, including psychologists, social workers, therapists and addiction counselors, have gone on short-term strike six times in the last 4 years. This would be his first indefinite strike, meaning the union is not setting an end date.

Kaiser has 4.6 million members in Northern California, Artz said, though that number doesn’t reflect how many are currently accessing their mental health benefits.

In a letter sent Sunday to the Department of Managed Health Care, which regulates health plans, the union asked the department to ensure that Kaiser continues to provide mental health care to patients during the strike, instead of canceling appointments. .

Amanda Levy, deputy director of health policy and stakeholder relations for 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 enrollees with medically necessary care within timely access and clinical standards at all times, including during an employee strike,” he said.

Despite growing efforts at the state level to enforce mental health parity laws, Kaiser mental health professionals say they still struggle to provide appropriate and timely care to patients.

Sarah Soroken, who has worked as a therapist at Kaiser Fairfield for six years, said access to treatment has worsened during her time there. She said the pandemic has exacerbated the situation, with more patients seeking care even as more therapists are leaving.

“Right now we are at a crisis point,” he said. “Things are worse than ever.”

Kaiser isn’t the only provider facing a shortage of mental health professionals. Counties, school districts and nonprofit organizations across the state have also filed shortage complaints. Artz said some Kaiser providers are being recruited to work at telehealth startups, where the money is good and work-from-home options abound. Others are entering private practice.

“Right now we are at a crisis point. Things are worse than ever.”

Sarah Soroken, Therapist at Kaiser Fairfield

The union says the rate at which mental health doctors are leaving Kaiser nearly doubled last year, with 668 doctors leaving between June 2021 and May 2022, compared to 335 doctors the year before. In a union survey of 200 of those leaving doctors, 85 percent said they were leaving because their workload was unsustainable or they felt they didn’t have enough time to complete the job, and 76 percent said they couldn’t. “treat patients according to their needs”. 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 move an additional 200,000 Medi-Cal members to Kaiser, given problems with mental health treatment. Democratic Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco has introduced a bill to reduce increase fines for health plans that do not comply with state laws.

Another Wiener bill, SB 221, which went into effect July 1, is intended to ensure patients don’t face lengthy delays for follow-up treatment through commercial providers like Kaiser. Specifically, the new law, which was sponsored by the union, requires that patients receive follow-up mental health care within 10 business days, unless a provider determines that a longer wait will not harm the patient.

In a virtual press conference in late June, Kaiser mental health professionals said the health giant was nowhere near meeting those requirements.

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