About 4,000 therapists, social workers and psychologists at Kaiser Permanente’s California locations, including 1,200 clinicians in the Bay Area, plan to begin striking Tuesday in protest of what they say are long wait times for patients seeking mental health appointments.
The planned action by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, the union that represents the Kaiser workers, is expected to begin Tuesday at Kaiser facilities in San Francisco, San Leandro, Santa Clara and Sacramento. It will continue Wednesday at Kaiser in San Jose and San Leandro; Thursday in Redwood City, San Leandro, Santa Rosa and Walnut Creek; and Friday in Oakland, San Leandro and San Rafael.
Kaiser facilities will remain open during the strike. A spokesman for Kaiser, which is headquartered in Oakland, said patients who need urgent mental health care will receive services but some non-urgent services are being rescheduled; he did not say how many appointments are being rescheduled.
“It is disappointing and disheartening that once again NUHW leadership is calling on our therapists to walk away from their patients,” Kaiser Vice President of Communications John Nelson said in a statement.
Union leaders say Kaiser prioritizes first-time appointments, known as intake assessments, because state regulations require they be done within 10 business days. They say patients seeking follow-up appointments, however, are having to wait much longer, sometimes one to two months in Northern California, to be seen by a clinician.
“I work with young people who are suicidal and self-harming and our group sessions are so crowded that children and their parents have to sit on the floor,” Kaiser therapist Alicia Cruz, who works in San Francisco, said in a statement provided by the union. “We just don’t have the resources at our clinic to provide the services these people need.”
The union and Kaiser management are negotiating the terms of a new contract after the previous pact expired in September. Health care workers participated in a five-day strike in December over similar concerns. The union has been pushing Kaiser to hire more clinicians and to give staff the more flexibility to see returning patients who need immediate care over first-time appointments.
Nelson, of Kaiser, said the union’s financial demands were “unreasonable,” and that Kaiser has offered pay increases, performance bonuses and other benefits in bargaining talks. The health system has increased its staff of therapists by 30% since 2015, he said.
Kaiser is the nation’s largest integrated health system with about 12 million patients, including 4 million in Northern California.
In 2013, Kaiser was fined $4 million by the California Department of Managed Health Care, one of the state’s largest insurer fines, for inadequate patient access to mental health treatment.
In 2017, the agency again criticized Kaiser for delays in behavioral health treatment but stopped short of issuing a fine.