The San Francisco Chronicle will host a gala dinner Tuesday to present its new Visionary of the Year Award to one of 13 nominees. Most of the nominees are worthy of the honor.
But the selection of Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson as a candidate for a visionary award requires a willful blindness on the part of the nominating committee. Just a few weeks ago, for the second time in as many years, slammed Kaiser for violating California laws by forcing thousands of patients to endure lengthy, illegal waits for basic mental health care.
In 2013, California’s Department of Managed Health Care fined Kaiser $4 million for these violations — the second-largest fine in the agency’s history. This year, Kaiser denied that these violations persist. In a full-page Chronicle ad in January, four Kaiser executives said allegations to the contrary were “factually wrong,” and Kaiser spokesman John Nelson told London’s Guardian newspaper that Kaiser had “resolved the issues identified by regulators” and there was “no truth in the allegations that there were lapses or delays.”
Yet last month, the DMHC released its follow-up report, showing that two years later, Kaiser is still violating the law and may face additional fines. The report contains heart rending stories, including the experiences of a sexual assault victim who turned to Kaiser, her HMO, for help. Diagnosed with major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, the patient was prescribed an antidepressant but given no follow-up appointment, even after she sent numerous emails seeking treatment. Kaiser suggested she seek care outside Kaiser at her own expense, wrongfully claiming services for her condition were not offered at Kaiser. It took five months for her to finally obtain an appointment with a Kaiser therapist.
The consequences of these delays can be tragic. Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane has spoken publicly about her husband’s suicide during a 42-day wait for treatment for major depression. Milpitas City Councilwoman Marsha Grilli has shared the story of her sister’s suicide during a six-week wait for treatment following a serious bout of depression and a psychotic break. And Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll has written about his own difficulty obtaining care from Kaiser.
“Kaiser can throw around as much smoke as it can find,” Carroll wrote in the Chronicle’s Jan. 13 edition. “The paucity of its mental health services is pretty well known locally. If it’s going to consciously gut the programs, it should just say so and move on. But it can’t pretend that black is white.”
Meanwhile, nonprofit Kaiser has raked in $15 billion over the past five years, and this year’s haul is up 15 percent over last year’s record.
“People aren’t getting rich off Kaiser,” Tyson says. Except, of course, Tyson and other top executives.
In 2013, outgoing CEO George Halvorson pocketed $10.2 million while incoming CEO Tyson commanded $4.3 million — plus a chauffeur-driven, company-paid car. “[Our] employees expect that when they retire, they’re going to get their benefits,” Tyson says. Yet Kaiser is eliminating pensions for employees while maintaining as many as nine separate pension plans for each of Kaiser’s top execs.
If this is Tyson’s vision of healing, he needs a new prescription.
Dr. Paul Song is executive chairman of the Courage Campaign, and Rick Roose is the vice president of the National Alliance of Mental Illness Marin County Chapter.