Mental health clinicians call for better staffing and services at Kaiser

Jim Bauford, a clinical psychologist who has worked 23 years at Kaiser, pickets in front of a Kaiser clinic on Geary Boulevard on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. (Lola Chase/ Special to SF Examiner)
(Lola Chase/ Special to SF Examiner)
Susan Siep, an adult therapist of 17 years at Kaiser, and Robin Neville, a therapist and clinical social worker, picket in front of a Kaiser clinic on Geary Boulevard on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. (Lola Chase/ Special to SF Examiner)
Evelyn Miccio, director of neuropsychology at Kaiser, joined the picket line on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. (Lola Chase/ SF Examiner)
Sam Sweet, a psychologist at the autism assesment clinic, was among those picketing. (Lola Chase/ Special to SF Examiner)
(Lola Chase/ Special to SF Examiner)
(Lola Chase/ Special to SF Examiner)

Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians went on strike outside the healthcare giant’s Geary Boulevard clinic Wednesday to call attention to what they say is a growing mental health crisis caused by understaffing.

The strike coincides with a vote by workers on a contract offer by Kaiser that union officials have said is likely to be rejected.

The striking workers say Kaiser patients are being subjected to dangerously overcrowded group therapy sessions and long wait times for appointment bookings, especially for children’s services.

“This is a last resort. I’d rather be inside working and seeing my patients,” said Jim Bauford, a clinical psychologist who has worked at the clinic 23 years. “But we’re really out here because we’re understaffed and we’re trying to get vital access to our patients for mental health services. We’ve sent letters to management and filed grievances, but you know Kaiser isn’t hearing us, so that’s why we’re out here. We’re advocating for patient care.”

Raquel Garcia, a therapist on the adult team, said it takes at least a month to get an appointment with her. Right now, she doesn’t have an available appointment for six to eight weeks. She said she has a patient who is bipolar and has cancer, and who can’t see her before she gets worse.

“People come here because they don’t feel well and it’s so hard already to come here and open up with somebody you don’t know,” said Garcia. “But then to be told that you cannot come back for 6-8 weeks and you go home and you don’t have support. I mean what do you tell these people?”

About 60 clinic staff members showed up to the strike.

Garcia and others said that people walk into the ER clinic because they cannot get basic care, and they do not have a crisis team anymore to handle all of them.

“That’s what happens with all these suicides and people getting worse because they are relying on our service that is not really provided,” said Garcia. “And it’s just heartbreaking.”

Siep mentioned that Kaiser is consistently taking on new patients and claiming that they’re fully staffed without providing more care to accommodate them.

“We’re here on strike because Kaiser has the money,” said Siep. “They’re making millions, yet they won’t hire more therapists. Make patient care a priority!”

Kaiser officials have said Kaiser has added child therapist staffing ad committed $50 million over the next three years to increase the number of people entering the mental health profession. A spokesman told The Examiner on Tuesday that the compay is meeting state regulations requiring them to offer the first mental health appointment within 10 days, although union officials dispute that claim.

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