A former Kaiser Permanente psychotherapist is raising troubling questions about the way Sonoma County's largest health care provider treats patients with mental illness.
Andy Weisskoff, who worked as a psychotherapist at Kaiser for nearly eight years, accuses the HMO of giving short shrift to one-on-one therapy and under-staffing the ranks of therapists. The practice, he claims, creates long waits between individual therapy sessions, leading to a deterioration in his patients' mental health.
Weisskoff gave 90 days' notice to Kaiser in February and began blogging, citing his frustration with what he calls an understaffed system that allows little time for crucial therapy.
Kaiser maintains this is at essence a union dispute and says Weisskoff, a union shop steward, refused to cooperate when the HMO sought to investigate his allegations. In early May, three weeks before his resignation was effective, Kaiser asked him to leave.
"I left the job because I was unable to provide the kind of care that I was trained for and that clients needed in order to get better," Weisskoff said. "I blogged because the vast majority of therapists and clients are struggling in this dysfunctional system, and I was hoping that it would help address deficiencies in the system."
His outspoken criticism has resonated with some Kaiser mental health patients and their families.
Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose husband was treated by Weisskoff before his 2011 suicide, is among those who contend Kaiser does not give mental health issues — such as major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or personality disorder — the same high priority it gives to cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
"Kaiser is important. They are a contained health care system — they should do better," Zane said.
In February, Weisskoff wrote the first of more than 60 posts on a scathing blog that provides an insider's look at the operations of Kaiser's psychiatry department in Santa Rosa — and casts a light on a simmering dispute between Kaiser and the union that represents its therapists.
On Thursday, the National Union of Healthcare Workers called on the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a criminal investigation into allegations that Kaiser Permanente delayed care and falsified appointment records for thousands of mental health patients.
Kaiser dismissed the action as a union ploy. It strongly rejects the accusation that it does not provide appropriate levels of mental health care to its members, or as some claim — including Zane — that it is "rationing" mental health services to control costs.
"Absolutely not. ... We do not ration care," said Dr. Mason Turner, director of patient operations for regional mental health services at The Permanente Medical Group, the plan's regional medical group for Northern California in Oakland.
Kaiser says Weisskoff's allegations, which it is investigating, must be viewed in the context of protracted labor negotiations between the nonprofit HMO and the National Union of Health Care Workers. Weisskoff was a shop steward for the NUHW, which represents about 1,600 of Kaiser's 67,000 nonphysician employees in Northern California. The union, Kaiser officials said, is trying to apply pressure by disparaging the HMO and undermining its reputation.
Kaiser defended its Northern California mental health care, which it said is one of the highest rated in the state, according to the 2014 California Office of the Patient Advocate report card.