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Kaiser Mental Health Workers Strike Over Staffing-Level Concerns

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) -- Kaiser Permanente is the largest health care provider in California. But starting Monday, some 4,000 Kaiser mental health professionals across the state are going on strike.

The Union's position is clear. There are simply not enough mental health professionals to see patients in a timely manner and provide the critical care they need. And they're asking Kaiser to increase wages and hire more people to improve the ratios.

The Union and Kaiser met just last week but negotiations stalled, prompting the strike which is planned for several days.

"Care delayed, care denied," said Kenneth Rogers.  Rogers has been with Kaiser for 15 years. He's a Psychologist and executive board member of The National Union of Healthcare Workers.  "And we've all had patients go into crisis. They call you up, 'I need to be seen today.' They may not be around tomorrow if they don't see you today. And if I'm booked up at the levels that currently exist or have been proposed across the table, I can't see these patients when I need to in crisis situations," Rogers said.

Patients have been sharing their stories on the Union's Facebook page.  Alisha wrote: "Truth. I'm currently waiting to be seen after a suicide attempt."

And Paul writes: "I was limited to 1 therapy visit a month and then was told there was nothing more they could do. 3 weeks later I was picked up on a 51-50"

"These folks have the resources to provide this level of care. And the refusal to do so is just cruel"

Kaiser released the following statement:

We want our members and patients to know that during this strike, we are working hard to deliver the high-quality care and services they need. All our hospitals and medical offices are open. Anyone in need of urgent mental health or other care will receive the services they require, although some non-urgent services are being rescheduled. We apologize for any inconvenience caused by this unnecessary strike.

Alongside our therapists, Kaiser Permanente has been on a path to be the best mental health and addiction care program in the nation. The quality of the care we provide has been recognized by the state's Office of the Patient Advocate, and by national quality organizations. We are committed to doing even more, to innovate, to advance care, and to continually seek to improve what we do.

We have been hiring therapists, increasing our staff by 30% since 2015, even though there's a national shortage. We've invested $175 million to expand and improve our mental health care offices, to provide environments that offer our patients convenience, comfort and privacy.

It's particularly disheartening that union leadership would call this strike during the holiday season, when many of our patients with mental health needs may be at their most vulnerable.

Kaiser Permanente is the highest paying employer for mental health workers in California. The union is demanding wage increases that would be even higher. Across Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, the majority of psychologists earn $137,000 or more, and the majority of social workers earn $113,000 or more.

The union's principal demands at the bargaining table have not been about improving care and access. 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.

  • The union wants to reduce the amont of time that caregivers spend seeing patients.
  • Even though there is a shortage of caregivers, the union wants to stop Kaiser Permanente from working with highly qualified community therapists to ensure access to care for our patients.
  • Even worse, the union is discouraging community-based caregivers from treating our patients during this strike. In the union's words, they are trying to "shut down mental health services" this week. This is irresponsible and dangerously insensitive to people in need of care.

And in full disclosure: we are seeking no takeaways in our contract proposal. We are offering wage increases which would keep our expert therapists among the best compensated in their profession, and continue to ensure that we attract and retain the most highly skilled professionals.

Despite the union leadership's tactics, we are committed to responsibly reaching a new contract agreement. We value our therapists and are calling on them to talk to their union leadership and urge them to bargain constructively, and stop putting our patients in the middle of their contract demands.

-- Michelle Gaskill-Hames, chief nurse executive, Kaiser Permanente Northern California

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