Kaiser mental health workers prepare to strike statewide

About 4,000 Kaiser Permante mental health workers statewide will begin a 5-day strike on Monday, a move that is expected to impact patient services at 100 Kaiser medical facilities in California.

In the Bay Area, union psychologists, therapists, psychiatric nurses and other healthcare workers will strike at Kaiser facilities in Oakland, Walnut Creek, Redwood City, Santa Clara and San Jose following more than a year without a contract. 

The strike was originally planned for mid-November, but it was postponed after the sudden death of Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson.

Workers say Kaiser's mental health system is broken and that patients often have to wait several weeks, or even months to get an appointment

“The lack of mental healthcare that Kaiser provides is ridiculous and it’s seriously dangerous,” said patient Greta Christina.

Christina, a San Francisco-based writer and public speaker, said she is battling depression and anxiety.

“I know what therapy is,” said Christina. “I know how it works and I know what it takes to get better and I’m not getting better.”

She said she is frustrated at what she calls a long stretch of untreated depression and waiting more than a month to see a therapist.

“It’s really what’s not clinically appropriate,” said Jason Lechner, a Kaiser marriage and family therapist.

For its part, Kaiser said they have heard worker's concerns and are trying to improve the mental health care system. 

“We’ve listened to our mental health workers, we've increased the amount of time for their office practice activities and we’ve made an increase in the time for repeat appointments,” said Kaiser Senior Vice President Michelle Gaskill-Hames.

Kaiser contends their therapists are among the highest paid and that the company has increased staffing by 30 % in the last two years

“We have 400 additional mental healthcare workers coming on board this year alone across the state of California,” said Gaskill-Hames. “This is why we are so disappointed in (the union) in launching a strike.”

The company went on to say the union rejected a mediator’s latest offer and the strike comes at a bad time during the holidays when depression rates can spike.

The strike is scheduled to start at 6 a.m. In the Bay Area, picket lines will be formed outside Kaiser’s San Francisco Medical Center on Geary Boulevard and at the two Santa Clara locations.

Hospitals and medical offices will remain open, but non-urgent appointments may be rescheduled.