Workers at Kaiser Permanente recently staged what is the largest mental health strike in history over the course of five days. Thousands of workers, at nearly 100 facilities across the state in protest of the healthcare giant’s continued refusal to provide what the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) considers to be adequate care. This is not the first time the NUHW has clashed with Kaiser Mental Health. In 2011, Kaiser employees complained to the California Department of Managed Healthcare (DMHC) that understaffing had led to unreasonably long wait times for patients. Following a 15 month investigation, the DHMC fined Kaiser $4 million, and in 2015, workers staged a five-day strike in protest of unchanging conditions, a continuing fight for employee contracts, and the retaliation by Kaiser against prominent whistleblowers.
According to both union officials and picketing workers, the issues that sparked the conflict in 2015, especially those involving understaffing, remain central to last week’s strikes. According to NUHW, the ratio of clinicians to patients at Kaiser is one per 3,000–the same disproportionate ratio that existed in 2015. “They say they hired more people, but there’s a high rate of attrition,” says Anne Rose, a behavioral health clinician in Laguna hills. “People retire, people leave Kaiser because the workload is so big that a lot of people just don’t want to do it . . . What we had hoped for is that Kaiser would follow through on their goal of making Kaiser the best place for mental health care, and we haven’t seen that happen.”
NUHW began negotiations with Kaiser in May but no progress has been made. NUHW president Sal Roselli argues that Kaiser has more than enough money to address their concerns. “Kaiser is filthy rich, with over $46 billion cash reserve and investments,” Roselli says. “They can afford to provide adequate care, and so they should do it.”
Last year, Kaiser reported $3.8 billion in profits and $2.9 billion for the first nine months of 2018. The shortage of clinicians has real consequences for Kaiser Permanente patients, which means that new patients often have to wait up to six weeks to meet with a mental health professional, with repeat patients waiting up to 12 weeks.
For patients Like Caleb Henry, who suffers from serious depression and anxiety this reality poses a serious health problem. Henry, who has been a Kaiser patient for five years, says that long waits in between visits has significantly hindered his mental health treatment. He says that he recently began phone sessions with his therapists, but even still, he still often waits up to three months in between sessions. Around 30 percent of Kaiser patients are subcontracted to third party clinicians, who have no access to medical records and other important data.
Kaiser employees represented by the NUHW also say that their pay has not kept up with the rising cost of living in California. During contract negotiations, Kaiser representatives offered a wage increase of 1.5 percent, less than most other unionized Kaiser employees. “Our economic proposals will bring these 4,000 clinicians to the same benefit package and the same percentage wage increases as 100 thousand other Kaiser union members that are on the medical care side,” says Roselli.
Roselli hopes that contract negotiations Friday will yield results. “The Kaiser executives that are making the decisions about behavioral healthcare with some of our clinician leaders, I hope they’ll agree to walk their talk and really put together contract language that will hold them accountable to working with us to make Kaiser mental health provider the best place to receive and give mental healthcare.”
Workers on the picket line say that their goal above all else is justice for their patients. “I think everyone here, and all the people that I work with and have talked to are tired. We’re gonna fight for our patients,” explained Rose. “We just really want what’s right for our patients.”