An estimated 4,000 Kaiser Permanente mental health workers are preparing to stage a five-day strike at facilities throughout California to protest understaffing, crushing caseloads and a system that often leaves patients waiting for months to get appointments.
The Dec. 16-20 walkout by members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers could potentially shut down mental health services at more than 100 Kaiser clinics and medical facilities from San Diego to Sacramento, union representatives say.
Kaiser said it has contingency plans in place to ensure continued patient care.
The psychologists, therapists, psychiatric nurses and other healthcare professionals have been working without a contract for more than a year. The upcoming walkout was initially scheduled to take place last month but was put on hold when Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson died.
“We’re ready to work with Kaiser to create a new model for mental health care that doesn’t force patients to wait two months for appointments and leave clinicians with unsustainable caseloads,” said Ken Rogers, a Kaiser psychologist. “But Kaiser needs to show that it’s committed to fixing its system and treating patients and caregivers fairly.”
Return appointments lagging
In a survey conducted earlier this year, 77% of Kaiser clinicians said they must schedule patient return appointments further into the future than is clinically appropriate, and nearly three-quarters of those polled said the situation is getting worse.
Far too often, they said, patients are unnecessarily hospitalized because they can’t get walk-in services at Kaiser’s mental health clinics when they experience a crisis.
NUHW alleges the Oakland-based healthcare provider is refusing to negotiate a settlement to avert the strike unless mental health workers agree to lesser retirement and health benefits than other Kaiser employees in California receive.
Dennis Dabney, senior vice president of national labor relations and the Office of Labor Management Partnership for the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals, said the two sides have been working with an external, neutral mediator to reach a labor agreement.
“Last week, the mediator delivered a proposed compromise solution to both sides that we are seriously considering, however, the union has rejected it and announced plans to strike instead of working through the mediated process,” Dabney said in a statement.
For Southern California employees, the mediator’s recommendation includes therapist wage increases of 3% the first year, 2.75% the second and third year, and 2.5% the fourth year with lump sum payments in years two through four and a retroactive bonus of $2,600.
“While our therapists in Southern California are paid nearly 35% above market, we believe these issues are resolvable,” Dabney said.
In terms of retirement, NUHW employees in Southern California have the same defined contribution plan that nearly a dozen other unions have — a plan that has been in place for more than four years, he said.
“Our current proposal on the table actually enriches this program such that a 3% employee contribution would have a 9% contribution from Kaiser Permanente,” Dabney said. “Again, this is no reason to strike.”
Fines and state-ordered monitoring
Kaiser said it hired more than 400 new mental health clinicians throughout California this year in addition to building dozens of new treatment facilities and investing millions of dollars to help more people enter the mental health industry.