Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians in San Francisco and across northern California walked off the job Monday for a five-day strike calling for the HMO to increase staff and resources for mental health services.
Patients often wait more than a month for an appointment because there is only one full-time mental health clinician for every 3,000 Kaiser members in California, according to the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
“Clinicians are booked solid for weeks and patients are waiting far too long for therapy appointments,” said Clem Papazian, a Kaiser-licensed clinical social worker.
Psychologists, therapists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and addiction medicine specialists will be among 4,000 clinicians on picket lines at several locations around the state, including around 100 at Kaiser’s San Francisco Medical Center, said union spokesman Matt Artz.
Kaiser was fined $4 million by the state Department of Managed Health Care in 2013 for violating state laws requiring that patients receive timely access to mental health care, one of the largest such fines the agency has ever imposed. After follow up reports found that patients were still experiencing long waits for appointments despite increased staffing, state officials and Kaiser reached a settlement in 2017 that included a three-year outside monitoring program for mental health services.
Union officials allege that delays and understaffing continue to be a problem. While new patients can get an initial appointment, there are often delays of six to eight weeks for follow up appointments, according to union President Sal Roselli.
“While they hired several hundred more clinicians, several hundred more left or retired. And Kaiser membership increased by huge amounts, so the ratio of clinicians to Kaisers members — to patients today — is the same as it was 5 years ago,” Roselli said.
Roselli said the HMO is also pushing people into group therapy even when individual therapy would be more appropriate.
Kaiser representatives maintained the union’s stance at the bargaining table was not about improving care and access for patients.
“Rather, in addition to seeking even higher wages and benefits, the union is demanding changes to performance standards that would reduce, not increase, the availability of mental health care for our patients,” Michelle Gaskill-Hames, chief nurse executive for Kaiser Permanente Northern California, said Saturday.
Kaiser has been hiring therapists, increasing staff by 30 percent since 2015 and has invested $175 million to expand and improve mental health care offices, Gaskill-Hames said.
-Michael Toren and Bay City News contributed to this report.