The mental health services offered by Kaiser Permanente could come in for additional criticism Wednesday during a public forum in Santa Rosa highlighting laws that require insurance providers to offer equal coverage for both mental health and physical health conditions.
Kaiser has been criticized by state health officials for serious deficiencies in its mental health programs, including not providing timely initial appointments to mental health patients who request one-on-one psychotherapy. The HMO recently agreed to pay a $4 million fine levied by the state Department of Managed Health Care.
Wednesday’s forum, hosted by Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane and U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson, will give local residents the opportunity to share their experiences with the local mental health care system. Thompson will act as moderator for the event.
A key question is whether health plans are abiding by state and federal mental health parity laws, which mandate that coverage for mental health and substance abuse services are on par with those for medical and surgical services. The forum is being touted as a broad discussion about parity laws, but the growing scrutiny of Kaiser mental health services is expected to figure prominently during discussions.
“I hope that this issue of national debate — the need for equal services for mental health — goes to the next level by holding those insurance providers accountable,” said Zane. “What I’m trying to do here is model what other elected officials can do, county supervisors with congressional representatives putting on these listening forums.”
The forum will be include a panel portion with state and local behavioral health officials, as well as a “listening session,” where local residents will have the opportunity to tell their stories.
The panel portion will include state Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, along with representatives from the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the state Department of Managed Health Care and the state Department of Health Services.
Zane said she will recount her experience with Kaiser mental health services, which she blames for the 2011 suicide death of her husband Peter Kingston.
Former Kaiser psychotherapist Andy Weisskoff, who was scheduled to see Kingston two weeks before he killed himself, said he plans to attend and will, if allowed, recount his well publicized criticism of Kaiser mental health services.
Kaiser officials will also be present at the meeting.
Judy Coffey, senior vice president and area manager for Kaiser’s Marin-Sonoma service area, said in a statement that the subject of mental health parity is an important “community discussion” that goes beyond the services provided by Kaiser. President Obama’s Affordable Care Act has extended parity requirements to small group and individual health plans, Coffey said.
“We expect the Sept. 24 forum to offer feedback for all health plans, regulators, behavioral health professionals, and elected officials seeking to understand and implement mental health parity,” she said. “ We will be present, with others, to listen.”
Coffey said Kaiser has reviewed its health plans to make sure it is meeting all parity requirements.
“We are a learning organization dedicated to continuous improvement and we regularly review our care in order to enhance our services,” Coffey said, adding that Kaiser recently announced a “comprehensive” statewide plan to enhance mental health services.
She said effort included: more timely appointment scheduling; helping patients better manage their care and choose their own therapist; and adding more individual therapy as part of a “multi-modal treatment plan” that best suits the needs of the patient.