Mental health workers "strike" Kaiser Permanente

Kaiser Permanente, the nation's largest non-profit HMO, is seeing mass picketing at four northern and central California locations. The biggest worry right now is how long will the labor action last.

Some two thousand Kaiser Permanente mental health therapists made good on their promise to begin an open-ended, indefinite strike Monday morning. The mental health workers say they're fighting against "unethical" working conditions that are putting vulnerable people at risk. 

The Union says Kaiser has about one full-time mental health clinician for every 2,600 members. That, they say, has led to a record number of therapists leaving the HMO.

The HMO says it's about money and giving therapists more paperwork time away from patients. 

"The union rejected our offer without even a vote on it. Make no mistake, this strike is not about access to care as the union claims." said Kaiser Permanente's Dr. Sameer Awsare. 

"They want the people of California to believe we are just a bunch of selfish therapists who are concerned about not getting a big enough raise this year, I'm here because I work with Kaiser patients that are depressed and anxious," said licensed social worker Jeffery Chen-Harding.

In a statement, the California Department of Managed Health Care says it is monitoring events at Kaiser and minces no words about the HMO's legal duties. 

"The law requires health plans provide enrollees with medically necessary care within timely access and clinical standards at all times, which includes during an employee strike," said DMHC Director Mary Watanabe.

Natasha Bowman, a person with bipolar disorder, is an educated labor lawyer, HR expert and lecturer who set up a foundation to teach HR personnel how to get certification in understanding workplace mental health issues. 

"It is very difficult to find a mental health provided even if you are given substantial medical benefits. The mental providers compared to the number of citizens in the U.S. is like 30,000 to one," said Bowman. 

The only way she says she could get her own bipolar care when she was in a life-threatening mental health crisis. "It's a long waiting list even if you find someone in network," said Bowman. 

She says America has been and remains in a mental health crisis where even the people who render those services are often burned out and in need of their own mental care.