Health workers' union threatens to strike after filing complaint against Kaiser

- A complaint has been filed with the state against Kaiser Permanente by members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, alleging chronic under staffing and efforts to save money come at the expense of mental health patients.

The allegations in the complaint come after nearly five years of contract negotiations between the NUHW and Kaiser Permanente where negotiations have reached an impasse. On Monday, November 16th, 1,400 mental health workers will strike to protest the under staffing and other issues at Kaiser.

A spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente said a contingency plan is in place and all medical centers will remain open.

Guy Westfall, Senior Vice President for Human Resources, said a contingency plan is in place and all medical centers will remain open during the strike. Part of a statement reads: “The union publicly claims it is calling the strike over “patient care” issues. This is not true.  They are making this claim because they don’t want the public to know that the remaining major issues at the bargaining table are about wages and expectations of accountability.”

KTVU spoke to former Kaiser Permanente patient Chelsie Martinez about the allegations. She first sought treatment in Santa Rosa for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and anxiety in 2009. According to Martinez’s therapist, she saw a psychiatrist within four days of requesting an appointment. After three sessions, she said she was referred to group therapy.

“But it wasn’t helpful,” Martinez said. “I think it was actually even more harmful for me.”

Her group therapist, Licensed Clinical Social Worker Andy Weisskoff, began seeing her one on one, but said gaps between appointments were long. Sometimes the wait was up to six weeks. Weisskoff said long wait times were common because of under staffing.

“I would be booking six weeks out consistently and then it would go down to four weeks or it would go up to eight weeks,” Weisskoff said.

According to California’s Department of Managed Health Care, the state mandates Kaiser Permanente must book appointments for urgent care cases within 48 hours of a patient’s request. For non-urgent cases, appointments with a psychiatrist must be booked within 15 days or 10 days if they’re seeing a therapist.

“One of those gaps that was extensive led me to an attempted suicide if you will… just from feeling completely lost,” Martinez said.

Although she lived to tell her story, Daniel McCain of Santa Rosa did not.

Candy McCain said her son sought treatment at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa in April 2014 as was also steered into group therapy. She believes that was a mistake.

“He couldn’t get in to talk to somebody one on one,” she said. “Like they didn’t have time for him.”

McCain provided KTVU her son’s medical records which show he tried to hurt himself in July 2014 and was briefly placed in a mental health hospital in Santa Rosa. His family said McCain had one follow up appointment a month later, but five days after the appointment, McCain took his own life.

“They told him he was depressed and he believed it,” she added.

In 2014, Kaiser Permanente paid a $4 million fine issued by the Department of Managed Health Care over long wait times for patients. The fine was levied after a 2013 routine survey of Kaiser identified deficiencies, which included Kaiser not keeping accurate records of appointment requests and not providing timely appointments to patients.

In an updated report released in February 2015, the state said Kaiser has corrected some deficiencies, but patients are still waiting too long to get care.

In a statement, DMCH Director Shelley Rouillard said, “Kaiser’s actions have not been sufficient to ensure enrollees have consistent timely access to behavioral health services.”

Dr. Mason Turner, Director of Outpatient Services for Regional Mental Health in Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California Region, said the report did not find any issues with the quality of care they provide. He addressed several changes they’ve made.

“We’ve hired hundreds of new staff,” Turner said. “We are on track to hire hundreds more of new therapy staff.”

Turner stressed the care of patient’s is Kaiser’s top priority.

“Our primary goal is to treat our patients and make sure they get better,” Turner said.

Clement Papazian with the National Union of Healthcare Workers disagrees.

“They give the appearance of solving the problem when in fact the problem is not solved at all,” Papazian said.

He believes Kaiser Permanente is trying to maximize profits. He said Kaiser employees steer mental health patients into group therapy to save money.

“Which eliminates the legal requirement of clinicians to make those care plans and instead puts the care plan into the hands of executives and the accountants,” he said.

KTVU asked Turner if there is a directive to put patients into group therapy to save money. He said the directive is take care of patients in the best way they can.

“The vast majority of care we provide in Kaiser Permanente is individual psychotherapy,” Turner said.

Turner added that any patient who feels they are not doing well in group therapy have other options available to them.

Still, families like McCain believe those patients are still receiving in adequate care.

“If they cared Danny would be alive and other suicides wouldn’t have happened,” McCain added.

In the complaint filed with the state by the NUHW, they included a document they called a “smoking gun.” The union provided KTVU this document and said it clearly showed Kaiser Permanente is making decisions at the expense of patients. One page shows group appointments are 80 percent less expensive than a one on one appointment.

A spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente discredited the document and said it was part of a formal student project two years ago and the report was never implemented or presented to staff.

KTVU could not independently verify where the document came from, whether it was directly connected to any Kaiser policies, or what it may or may not mean for patient care.

It will be up to the DMHC to determine if they document has any merit. The DMHC confirmed they received correspondence from the NUHW. The complaint is under review.

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