Kaiser mental health clinicians set Nov. 19 strike date

Psychologists, therapists and social workers will strike Nov. 19 at Kaiser Permanente facilities across Northern California, according to the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents the workers.

The nearly 2,000 mental health clinicians are striking in solidarity with members of the Stationary Engineers, Local 39, over concerns about waiting times for therapy appointments and the caseloads faced by therapists. Engineers have been striking at Kaiser Permanente facilities in Northern California since September. 

"Every time we've gone on strike to demand better care for our patients, the engineers have joined us on the picket line," Willow Thorsen, a Kaiser Permanente social worker in Santa Rosa, said in a news release. "We're striking now to stand up for our colleagues and our patients, who are being denied the care they need."

National Union of Healthcare Workers-represented mental healthcare clinicians in Northern California have been without a contract since Oct. 1. During negotiations, the union claims Kaiser Permanente has rejected proposals to boost staffing, recruit more bilingual and minority therapists and ease caseloads they deem unsustainable.

National Union of Healthcare Workers also referenced legislation signed Oct. 8 by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that requires health plans and insurers to provide patients with timely follow-up care for mental health issues and substance use disorders. Union representatives contend Kaiser will need to hire many more clinicians to comply with the new law, which takes effect July 1.

Additionally, the union cited a survey of Kaiser mental health clinicians released in January 2021, in which 80 percent of respondents reported that their clinics don't have adequate staffing to provide appropriate and timely care.

Kaiser Senior Vice President of Human Resources Arlene Peasnall, in a statement shared with Becker's Hospital Review Nov. 9, expressed disappointment about the strike and noted actions Kaiser Permanente has taken to address the shortage of caregivers, including adding hundreds of new mental health clinicians over the last five years.

"We currently have more than 300 open positions. We've worked hard to expand the number of therapists in California and are investing $30 million to build a pipeline to educate and train new mental health professionals across the state," she said. "We have significantly expanded our ability to provide virtual care to patients who want it, increasing convenience and access, even though NUHW initially objected to this effort. We also continue to scale up our collaborative care programs that have proven to effectively treat patients with anxiety and depression diagnoses."

Because of these and other efforts, Kaiser Permanente "offers timely access to initial and return appointments that meets all state standards and is above the average of other California providers," added Ms. Peasnall.

She said the real issue at the bargaining table is how much therapists earn, and that Kaiser Permanente is working to address the challenge of healthcare being increasingly unaffordable.

"If we continue to increase costs so high above the marketplace, our members will not be able to afford to get the care they need," Ms. Peasnall said. "We have to work together to address this challenge in a way that honors and rewards our employees and recognizes the increasing difficulty our members and customers face in paying for care."

The 2,000 mental health clinicians have scheduled pickets outside Kaiser Permanente hospitals in San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, Santa Rosa, Oakland and San Jose starting at 6 a.m. on Nov. 19.

More than 30,000 Kaiser Permanente workers in other unions also plan to strike beginning Nov. 15 over issues such as staffing as well as a proposed two-tiered wage system.

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