Kaiser employees with the National Union of Healthcare Workers march in front of the Kaiser Medical Office Building on Geary Boulevard on day one of a five-day planned strike on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/2018 SF Examiner)

Kaiser mental health workers walk out over understaffing, lack of resources

More than 60 mental health workers with Kaiser Permanente are expected to participate in a one-day strike in San Francisco on Wednesday to call attention to understaffing that they say has severely reduced services for patients.

The workers are represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents more than 4,000 clinicians across the state that have been working without contracts since September. A vote on a new contract offered by Kaiser is scheduled for tomorrow and is expected to be resoundingly rejected, according to union organizers.

But union leaders and workers at the healthcare consortium’s Geary Boulevard campus said that higher wages and increased benefits are not at the crux of Wednesday’s action. They say that children suffering from depression and anxiety must often wait up to six weeks to be seen by a therapist, while group therapy sessions are often so crowded and patients and their families must sit on the floor.

“The current therapist to Kaiser patients ratio is one to 3,500 statewide — which is totally inadequate — but in San Francisco it’s much worse,” said NUHW President Sal Rosselli, adding that at the Geary Clinic, one therapist serves about 4,600 children and adult patients. “The therapists are calling for this one-day strike because everyday at this clinic there is the critical situation of understaffing.”

The Geary Boulevard clinic has operated without a manager for 18 months, and workers there allege that staff with no specialized experience in child therapy “have been borrowed from other departments” to do the initial intake appointments.

Sarah Phillips, the San Francisco outpatient clinic’s only Child Eating Disorder Specialist serving all Kaiser patients in The City, said that she has been kept on as a part-time employee for years, and that worsening conditions within the clinic are now forcing her to resign.

“Our clinic has chosen to employ only one part-time eating disorder clinician for all children in SF that have eating disorders,” said Phillips. “Our dietitian’s availability is limited. Our patients are not getting full scale treatment for a complex disorder that has a mortality rate that is higher than for any other mental health issue, a rate that is higher than childhood leukemia.”

Ron Groepper, senior vice president and area manager for Kaiser Permanente Greater San Francisco, said in a statement issued on Tuesday that it is “disappointing” that the union is “calling on our mental health therapists to walk away from their patients.”

“Kaiser Permanente has been in bargaining with NUHW for over a year and our therapists have been voting on Kaiser Permanente’s comprehensive proposal that reflects the input of their bargaining team,” said Groepper. “Our offer will keep our therapists the best compensated in California, increase the number of therapists, and make more time in therapists’ schedules to see patients.”

Groepper added that “meeting the increased demand for mental health services is a national challenge that faces all health care providers, not just Kaiser Permanente.”

He said that Kaiser has, among other things increased child therapist staffing over the last several years and has committed $50 million over the next three years to increase the number of people entering, developing, and remaining in the mental health professions. “

Groepper added Kaiser is “currently meeting state regulations for first-time mental health appointments within 10 days,” although union leaders disagree.

“It’s the law that once a patient calls in, they get an appointment within 10 days. They tried to make that first mandatory appointment a 30-minute phone consultation with a parent about their child as opposed to a traditional 90-minute in-person session with the parent and the child,” said Rosselli. “So the first therapy appointment is taking weeks to get and the second therapy another multiple weeks.”

The shortages continue as Kaiser recently signed a $295 million sponsorship deal with the Warriors, naming a plaza in front of the new stadium “Thrive City.”

“Just a few miles away they are branding [the Stadium] to the tune of almost $300 million while not having enough staff for patients,” said Roseelli, adding that Kaiser’s “priorities are misplaced.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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