Kaiser mental health clinicians announce 1-day strike over understaffing, long patient wait times

Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians in the Bay Area and the Central Valley will hold a one-day strike next week, union officials representing the workers said on Tuesday.

A total of about 2,000 clinicians will stage pickets on Nov. 19 outside Kaiser Hospitals in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento, and Fresno.

The demonstrations will start at 6 a.m., according to officials with the National Union of Health Workers, which represents the workers.

The striking workers are demanding that Kaiser bargain in good faith to fix what they say is a "broken mental health care system" that's resulted in patients waiting as long as three months for therapy appointments and left overwhelmed therapists with more patients than they can handle.

Kaiser mental health clinicians have been without a contract since Oct. 1. As they negotiate a new contract, union officials allege Kaiser has rejected union requests to hire more workers, recruit more bilingual and minority therapists, and reduce caseloads for therapists.

Union officials said the need for more clinicians is urgent, as state Senate Bill 221, authored by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month, is set to go into effect in July 2022. The law would require health providers to book mental health therapy patients for follow-up appointments within 10 business days unless the clinician determines a longer wait time would not be detrimental to the patient.

"Kaiser has the resources to be the best place to give and receive behavioral health care, but it's chosen to be the poster child for unequal, unethical care," NUHW President Sal Rosselli said. "Kaiser's refusal to even consider proposals to boost staffing and improve care shows that it's not serious about working with clinicians to fix its mental health care system."

To meet the shortage of mental health clinicians, Kaiser has said it's aggressively hiring mental health specialists, hiring more than 600 therapists in California since between 2016 and 2020, and continuing to actively recruit more. In addition, Kaiser also said it has invested some $30 million to train new mental health clinicians statewide.

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In a statement, Kaiser Senior Vice President of Human Resources Arlene Peasnall said increasingly unaffordable health care costs paired with escalating wages for mental health care professionals are central to the issue.

"Kaiser Permanente is indisputably one of the most labor-friendly organizations in the United States. We are committed to remaining an employer of choice for mental health professionals, and to continuing to offer our employees market-leading wages and benefits. But we cannot continue to allow costs to grow beyond what our members can afford," Peasnell said. "The challenge we are trying to address is that if we continue to increase costs so high above the marketplace, our members will not be able to afford to get the care they need. We have to work together to address this challenge in a way that honors and rewards our employees and recognizes the increasing difficulty our members and customers face in paying for care."

Peasnell added, "We take seriously any threat to disrupt care. We urge our employees to reject any call for a strike, continue to focus on providing care, and work with us through the bargaining process to finalize a new agreement."