Forum on mental health laws to include Kaiser officials

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.

That plan was announced two weeks ago, when Kaiser said publicly it would no longer fight the $4 million fine, which was imposed by the state Department of Managed Health Care in June 2013 - the second-largest ever in the agency’s 14-year history.

State regulators alleged Kaiser was not accurately tracking patients’ access to its therapists. The agency also said Kaiser could not ensure that patients were offered timely initial appointments with therapists for non-urgent matters, in violation of state regulations.

Kaiser’s critics, including the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents 2,500 Kaiser mental health workers at 100 sites across the state, are skeptical about Kaiser’s efforts to improve mental health services. Some Kaiser psychotherapists claim that Kaiser still fails to provide timely access to mental health therapy sessions.

The state’s managed health care agency is conducting a follow-up survey to determine whether Kaiser has corrected its alleged deficiencies and is complying with the law.

While critical of Kaiser, Zane said the issue of parity for mental health care goes far beyond Kaiser’s HMO offerings. She bemoaned what she said amounted a nationwide problem, one that can be felt with every school shooting, veteran suicide or deadly police encounter of a mental health patient.

“It’s screaming at us,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish.

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