By Alicia Cruz
Sometimes it seems that Kaiser Permanente is throwing money at everything but mental health care.
In recent weeks we’ve learned that Kaiser is building a $900 million headquarters in Oakland and paying the Golden State Warriors nearly $300 for a sponsorship deal that includes naming rights to “Thrive City,” the sports and entertainment complex surrounding the Warriors’ new arena.
Elsewhere Kaiser has made a commotion about the construction of new buildings and facilities — but has not hired new mental health workers to staff them.
Meanwhile, we’re facing a child mental health crisis at Kaiser’s San Francisco clinic. Chronic understaffing has resulted in intolerable appointment wait times and overcrowding of group therapy sessions.
That’s why dozens of mental health clinicians at the French Campus at 4141 Geary Blvd. have called a one-day strike Wednesday, July 10.
Kaiser mental health clinics are understaffed across California, and the HMO’s lone San Francisco clinic has reached a breaking point. Children, many of whom are dealing with depression, anxiety, and the impacts of bullying, now have to wait four to six weeks for their first face-to-face visit with a Kaiser mental health therapist — and just as long or longer for a return appointment.
Group therapy sessions for children who are self-harming and contemplating suicide have become so crowded that some children and their parents have to sit on the floor because there aren’t enough therapists to provide them the one-on-one care needed for successful early intervention.
The San Francisco clinic went without a manager for 18 months. Staff with no specialized experience in child therapy have been borrowed from other departments to do the initial intake appointments, and no new job openings have been posted.
We just don’t have enough resources in our clinic to provide all of the services that our patients need, and Kaiser isn’t doing anything about it.
Last week, through our union we filed a complaint with the California Department of Managed Health Care, the agency responsible for regulating HMOs, alleging that Kaiser is in violation of multiple state laws and requesting an investigation.
We also sent a letter to Kaiser management informing them that we could call off the July 10 strike if they would agree to implement specific improvements, including posting five new positions and agreeing to stop making unilateral changes that impact our ability to provide timely mental health care to children.
We have yet to receive a response.
In contract bargaining for Kaiser mental health clinicians statewide, we have asked Kaiser to dramatically increase the number of full-service mental health clinicians so that our patients get the care they need when they need it.
We’ve asked Kaiser to establish Crisis Teams in every Kaiser psychiatry department statewide so we don’t have to cancel other appointments to address emergencies.
And we’ve asked Kaiser to give therapists more time for patient care duties beyond seeing patients. We need to be able to coordinate with other health care providers, follow up with schools and social service agencies, and complete patient charts — all within scheduled working hours.
Kaiser can well afford to implement these commonsense solutions. The company announced profits of $1 billion a month during the first quarter of 2019, and is sitting on $44 billion in cash and investments.
Kaiser executives need to change their priorities. Profits are soaring and they’re spending billions of dollars on buildings and branding, but they won’t spend a fraction of that to help kids get care that could save their lives.
Alicia Cruz is a therapist at Kaiser Permanente’s San Francisco clinic.