Kaiser Permanente mental health services under fire at forum

Patients and others say the HMO’s mental health services are not on par with care for physical ailments.|

Kaiser Permanente’s local mental health services were strongly criticized Wednesday evening during a public forum in Santa Rosa aimed at spotlighting laws that require insurance providers to offer equal coverage for both mental health and physical health conditions.

A majority of the at least 40 speakers who addressed a panel, which included state and federal health care officials, blasted Kaiser, saying the HMO had failed to provide adequate and timely mental health services.

Jessica Birrer, 34, of Santa Rosa said she has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for 12 years. Birrer said she has not received sufficient care from Kaiser mental health professionals, whom she has seen only three times in the past two years, twice related to medication services and once for therapy treatment.

“I have done everything I can to receive the treatment that I need,” Birrer said. “Until I get the treatment I need, I won’t give up on myself. As far as I’m concerned Kaiser has given up on me.”

One Santa Rosa father, who later asked that his name not be used, said his 28-year-old son, who suffers from a mental condition that renders him highly delusional, “should have been treated more promptly” by Kaiser. He said his wife also has struggled to get individual psychotherapy from Kaiser.

“I will say Kaiser does some good things. I have a new hip that I’m very happy with,” he said. But Kaiser’s mental health services, he said, are not on par with their physical health care.

The forum Wednesday, which was hosted by Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane and U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, gave people the opportunity to share their experiences with the local mental health care services.

The forum focused on what are known as mental health parity laws, both state and federal, which require health plans such as Kaiser’s HMO to provide mental health and substance abuse services at the same level as the plan’s medical and surgical services. These mental health parity requirements have become a priority under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The public forum panel included Brenda Grealish, chief of the mental health services division of the state Department of Health Care Services; Sherrie Lowenstein, deputy director for legislative affairs at the Department of Managed Health Care, which regulates HMOs; 4th District state Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, whose district includes parts of Sonoma Valley and Rohnert Park; and Bonnie Preston, policy and outreach specialist for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Thompson, who moderated the forum, credited Zane’s local efforts at raising awareness about the need to get health plans to provide better mental health services, in compliance with parity laws. Thompson said one in five Americans will experience some form of mental illness.

“The big rub is the access to treatment,” said Thompson, adding that mental health has been the “stepchild of health care for way too long.”

Zane, whose husband Peter Kingston was treated by Kaiser shortly before his 2011 suicide, was the driving force behind Wednesday’s forum. She has publicly accused Kaiser of rationing mental health services by providing insufficient one-on-one psychotherapy.

She said her office has become a “sounding board” for many local residents concerned about inadequate mental health services.

Kaiser officials have met with Zane about her concerns and expressed sympathy for her loss. But they have also characterized the HMO’s efforts to treat larger numbers of mental health patients as part of a “crisis” that is taking place nationwide. In addition, Kaiser officials have pushed back at the notion that one-on-one sessions with a therapist are a “gold standard” and more effective than group therapy, which the HMO recommends to many of its patients.

Former Kaiser psychotherapist Andy Weisskoff, who was Kingston’s therapist just before he died, also spoke at the forum.

“I decided to resign from Kaiser this past February,” he said. “I left because I could not get enough time to treat my clients safely and effectively.”

Not all of the speakers at the forum were critical of Kaiser. One local resident, the Rev. Tom Chesterman, a retired Episcopal priest, said he received “prompt” therapy after he started having “problems” brought on by the death of his wife four years ago.

“I don’t know what I did differently,” he said.

Another speaker criticized Blue Cross mental health benefits. And several speakers raised concerns about the possible closure of the Sonoma Developmental Center in Eldridge.

But the most speakers strongly criticized Kaiser mental health services.

Carl Campbell, a Kaiser spokesman who sat in the audience during the forum, said he would not comment on the forum.

“I’m here to listen,” he said.

Judy Coffey, senior vice president and area manager for Kaiser’s Marin-Sonoma service area, said earlier this week that Kaiser is a “learning organization” constantly trying to improve its services. Coffey said Kaiser had recently announced a “comprehensive” statewide plan to enhance mental health services.

These efforts include scheduling appointments in a more timely manner; 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.

At the forum, Fred Seavey, research director for the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents 2,500 Kaiser mental health workers across the state, said Kaiser still does not provide timely therapy to its patients, despite the HMO recently agreeing to pay a $4 million levied by the state Department of Managed Health Care. Seavey called for a much larger penalty.

During closing comments, Lowenstein, the Department of Managed Health Care representative, said, “We’re not done with Kaiser.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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