Thousands of Kaiser workers strike, calling attention to mental health services

Thousands of mental health care workers from Kaiser walked off the job early Monday morning, demanding increased staffing and timely access to patients. The strike is planned for the next five days at Kaisers across the state. In the Bay Area, workers from nearly all 40 Kaiser medical facilities will be participating.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane lost her husband Peter Kingston to suicide in 2011. In part, she holds Kaiser accountable for his death. She said her husband was under treated for his acute depression and waited for weeks to see a therapist with no medication management.

“I don't complain about Kaiser's care for the most part in terms of health care but they have not integrated mental health into their regular health care services and they failed to treat adequately their patients and that's why people are dying,” said Zane.

Zane calls it a civil rights issue. She will join roughly 4,000 Kaiser mental health workers from across the state on strike.       

Miranda Buxton is a licensed clinical social worker at Kaiser and said she's overburdened with new patients.  

“For every I believe 3,000 members that enter in the Kaiser system, there's only one mental health therapist. That's the ratio and we just can't keep up the volume that's coming in,” said Licensed Clinical Social Worker Miranda Buxton.

She’s demanding Kaiser hire more staff so patients can be seen in a timely manner. Buxton said, patients are typically booked appointments four to six weeks out.

“Having timely access to mental health appointments is imperative because if you don't treat these people, there are severe consequences to not treating the depression,” said Buxton.

The last time union workers went on strike was fall of 2015. A Kaiser spokeswoman calls this current strike disappointing.

“It’s a bargaining tactic,” said Kaiser Chief Nurse Executive Michelle Gaskill-Hames. “It's not at all about mental health access or better care. It’s really about more money and we are already the highest paid employer for mental health workers in California.”

Gaskill-Hames said Kaiser is working on building a world-class mental health program, increasing the workforce by 30 percent in the last three years and investing $175 million in updating its facilities.

“We have prioritized it very high and our access to mental health care services is strong,” said Gaskill-Hames.

Gaskill-Hames said they're rescheduling appointments for this week for non-urgent cases. Kaiser is partnering with mental health agencies so patients with urgent cases will receive care.

All Kaiser hospitals and medical offices will remain open during the strike.

The California Nurses Association is allowing its members to strike in sympathy. The strike will kick off at the San Francisco Medical Center on Geary at 6 a.m. A picket is also planned in San Jose.