Mental health strike against Kaiser Permanente

Mental health strike against Kaiser Permanente

Photo Credits: MATT ARTZ / COURTESY

National Union of Healthcare Workers, others picketed for more mental health resource allocation

Across California, the fight for mental health rights picked up momentum as psychologists, therapists, nurses and teachers began a five-day strike against Kaiser Permanente. Strikers demanded for more resource allocation for mental health services.

Ken Rogers, a psychologist at Kaiser Permanente in Elk Grove as well as a shop steward for the National Union of Healthcare Workers, explained the main reasons for the strike.

“The mental health strike is kind of an extension of the contract bargaining where we had a concern with the amount of access time for new patients and return patients for treatment with the employer,” Rogers said. “Although Kaiser has made a number of improvements in this direction, patient care — especially return access for care —  is still pushed out for some providers for five, six, even eight weeks. And when I talk about return access, I mean the patient has come in for services and all the sessions that are after that initial appointment. We’ve been bargaining with the employer since June, and they have not responded meaningfully, and we felt like we needed to strike to push the issue.”

Michelle Gaskill-Hames, the chief nurse executive for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, gave a different perspective in that she felt the strike had unfortunate timing and posed a risk for patients during the holidays.

“This strike was unnecessary, and poorly timed, coming during the holiday season when many of our patients with mental health needs were seeking care,” Gaskill-Hames said via email. “It needlessly put our patients in the middle of the union’s contract demands, which is especially disheartening because the union’s principal demands at the bargaining table have not been about improving care and access. Rather, the union leadership is seeking even higher wages and benefits and demanding operational changes that would reduce the availability of mental health care for our patients.”

Fourth-year psychology major Michelle Melton countered the idea that the union wanted solely higher wages.

“One thing that instigated me wanting this to be looked at was because Kaiser was doing [public relations] about the strike saying that clinicians wanted more money and that they were putting patient health care at risk when really, I know a lot of clinicians who were on strike who were doing it to help their clients,” Melton said. “And so what my hope is that the community needs to be more aware because this is a social justice issue, considering that the majority of Kaiser patients were low income and working families that can’t afford Kaiser.”

Nevertheless, Gaskill-Hames confirmed that Kaiser Permanente has value for the unions and workers, wanting the best for patients as well.

“We are pleased that the union’s leadership has agreed to return to the bargaining table,” Gaskill-Hames said via email. “We are prepared to reach a responsible new contract agreement and are confident that with active engagement on both sides, we will be successful. We value our therapists and are calling on them to urge their union leadership to bargain constructively and stop putting our patients in the middle of contract demands. It’s just not right to disrupt their care.”

Susan Whitney, a psychiatric social worker at Kaiser Permanente and union steward for NUHW, contended how discouraged she was during the bargaining.

“It’s been extremely frustrating,” Whitney said. “When I go to a bargaining session, I’m not paid for that — it’s on my own time. I drove from Bakersfield to Orange County, and there was nothing new presented at the bargaining table.”

Whitney emphasized the importance of the sessions, as they are crucial for patient care.

“We had a bargaining session today, and it was rather disappointing because the message we got in bargaining was not the same as what they put out to media during the strike which was that they really value and want to work with us,” Whitney said. “They are refusing to respond to our demands to address the patient care issues other than saying that the committee — that has already been set up and has been going on for years and years and years — will have a discussion and make recommendations. I think when you have situations where people do not have needed medical and mental health care, then there needs to be a little more urgency when addressing the problem.”

Rogers also participated in the strike and he brought up another issue regarding working conditions in addition to a need for better patient care.

“We’re hoping that Kaiser will take patient care issues more seriously in terms of improving return access,” Rogers said. “There’s also the issue of working conditions for employees. We often have to use time outside of what we’re provided to provide care — booking into lunch appointments and times where you don’t even work to provide an adequate level of care for patients.”

Melton has had experience with Kaiser’s mental health services and praised their clinicians. The one drawback for her, however, was that she could not readily access them on her own time.

“My experience at Kaiser with the clinicians I had was phenomenal — that’s the reason why I stayed at Kaiser,” Melton said. “The only drawback with Kaiser is that they’re only able to be seen out of six to eight weeks. If something pops up and you need to be seen sooner than later, [then] that’s not really going to happen because their schedules are impacted so you’re not going to be able to see them and you have to go with their system.”

Gaskill-Hames acknowledged that Kaiser Permanente has the utmost quality in care programs.

“Alongside our therapists, Kaiser Permanente has been on a path to be the best mental health and addiction care program in the nation,” Gaskill-Hames said via email. “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 don’t think there is any other organization that is doing more than we are to make mental health care better in the United States. We are committed to doing even more, to innovate, to advance care, and to continually seek to improve what we do.”

Though Kaiser Permanente’s services are at a renowned quality, Melton remembered how she had trouble gaining access to care.

“This past summer, I had a family member die and I was in a car accident and I was going through a lot while going to grad school,” Melton said. “I really needed help with some things. Because I had Kaiser insurance, I wasn’t able to be seen at UC Davis to receive any assistance because they are like well, you have Kaiser insurance so we can’t really help you, but then I wasn’t able to see anyone at Kaiser because you are only able to be seen out of six to eight weeks.”

Whitney clarified that strikers like herself are fighting for patient rights, and they wanted more awareness brought to how patients can access mental health care.

“This is really about patient care,” Whitney said. “Our patients understand because they have the same concerns that we do. We have had patients reach out to us and to the media. I believe that at this point, we have over 750 different stories of people reaching out to us wanting to tell their story or to ask for help or assistance to solve the problems they have with getting mental health care.”

Written by: Stella Tran — city@theaggie.org