Kaiser faces state probe over mental health access amid strike

The California Department of Managed Health Care has opened a targeted enforcement investigation to examine whether Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente is providing timely access to appointments during an ongoing strike by mental healthcare workers.

Department Deputy Director of Communications and Planning Rachel Arrezola confirmed the probe Aug. 25 in a statement shared with Becker's.

"The DMHC is concerned about the potential for immediate harm to enrollees based on the very serious nature of allegations that the plan is not providing timely appointments to enrollees required by the law," Ms. Arrezola said. State officials notified Kaiser about the investigation Aug. 22.

The probe comes as more than 2,000 Kaiser mental health therapists, psychologists, social workers and chemical dependency counselors are on strike in Northern California and the state's Central Valley. The workers, who are members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, voted in June to authorize a strike and began an open-ended strike Aug. 15. Union members are also set to begin an open-ended strike Aug. 29 at Kaiser facilities in Hawaii.

During the strike in California, "we are working every day to ensure that we are able to meet our members’ mental health needs, and meet state requirements for access, using every resource available," Kaiser said in a statement shared with Becker's Aug. 26.

"As of today, about 40 percent of our dedicated clinicians are caring for members instead of striking, with more returning each day. In addition, our Kaiser Permanente psychiatrists, clinical managers and other licensed clinicians have stepped in to meet with people needing care. We are on our way to reaching agreements with hundreds of community-based mental health providers to open their schedules — for at least two months — to be able to treat more of our patients. They are agreeing to do so on very short notice, and given NUHW's open-ended strike, these providers' support may continue to be needed to ensure continuity of care for our patients ... We also have a clinical quality review process in place to ensure our patients receive the care they need."

The union contends Kaiser has failed to adequately boost staffing amid surging demand for mental healthcare and that, before the strike, patients were forced to wait months for therapy sessions. Kaiser contends the union has put forth a proposal that significantly reduces the time available to provide care for mental health patients. 

Now, state regulators have confirmed their investigation into Kaiser after patients filed complaints after the beginning of the strike, according to Politico

"Kaiser's executives need to obey the law, serve the patients and end the strike by agreeing to work with us to properly operate and staff its clinics," Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, said in a union news release shared with Becker's. "It's time for Kaiser to respect the importance of mental healthcare and fundamentally change its approach to how it treats both patients and clinicians." 

Ms. Arrezola said state regulators will continue to closely monitor Kaiser during the strike to ensure compliance with the law.

"This includes monitoring and tracking consumer complaints to the department's help center. The department is taking all complaints very seriously, and the DMHC is helping enrollees that contact the help center to obtain timely appointments for behavioral health services," she said.

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