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Santa Rosa mental health workers strike at Kaiser, asking for more support

Kaiser Permanente mental health workers - many clad in red shirts - picketed Tuesday near the main entrance of the Santa Rosa medical center, as part of a weeklong strike at Kaiser hospitals statewide.

Mental health workers here walked off the job, demanding that Kaiser improve the wait times for patients between their initial appointments and follow-up visits. They also said more staff is needed to treat the growing number of patients seeking mental health services.

“We are out here asking for an improvement in patient care and better return access for patients,” said Willow Thorsen, an adult psychiatrist who has worked at Kaiser in Santa Rosa for ?10 years. “We also need Kaiser to hire more clinicians. We need more help.”

Thorsen said she would rather be with patients than on strike. However, she said, mental health workers from multiple departments, including gynecology and the emergency room, were driven to the picket lines after five months of contract negotiations between the National Union of Healthcare Workers and Kaiser officials hit a wall.

About 4,000 psychologists, therapists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and other medical professionals are participating in the union walkout at Kaiser medical centers and picketing statewide. The union protests started Monday in San Francisco and are expected to conclude Friday. Strikers plan walkouts today and Thursday in San Rafael, before returning to Santa Rosa on Friday.

Michelle Gaskill-Hames, chief nurse executive for Kaiser Permanente Northern California, on Monday called the strike unnecessary. The Kaiser executive said even with the strike this week mental health patients are still being treated at all Kaiser hospitals.

“It is very unfortunate that this is occurring, and it is irresponsible and dangerous,” Gaskill-Hames said, calling Kaiser a leader in providing mental health services. “We have been hiring therapists and increasing our staff by ?30 percent since 2015, even though there’s a national shortage.”

Gaskill-Hames said the union picketing has nothing to do with patient access and care, but rather a push by mental health workers for a pay increase. Across Kaiser medical centers in Northern California, the majority of psychologists already earn $138,000 a year or more, she said.

Union workers disagree with that perspective.

In the emergency room at Kaiser in Santa Rosa, Gwendolyn Tzannes said she has seen a big increase in patients coming in for psychiatric care because they have nowhere else to go.

The emergency room team of medical professionals struggles to provide long-term treatment options, and often are forced to send patients home after an initial assessment.

“We can’t offer them what they need and the ER is imploding with folks who are anxious or depressed and can’t get an appointment,” said Tzannes, who has worked at Kaiser five years. “I feel helpless because I am meant to help people but can’t.”

Mental health workers contend patients face wait times of up to eight weeks from one appointment to the next.

“I had a patient of mine write me a poem about how difficult it was to wait two months to see me again,” Thorsen said. “It was heartbreaking to hear her read it out loud and you feel helpless.”

Coupled with long wait times for appointments, patients also are dealing with starting over with new therapists because of staff departures, Thorsen said.

“Turnover is traumatizing for patients,” Thorsen said. “Trust builds over time and when the patient gets a new clinician, it ruptures their treatment plan.”

To support their colleagues, Kaiser nurses were picketing in Santa Rosa on Tuesday alongside the mental health workers.

One of them was Denise Hoover, a nurse at the local Kaiser medical center for 18 years.

Hoover said she walked off the job because nurses encounter similar issues when helping mental health patients.

“We are out here in solidarity because we end up seeing these patients, too, and we usually just discharge them and then they always come back,” Hoover said. “It makes me sick.”

Despite their difficult contract negotiations, the striking mental health professionals said they remain hopeful Kaiser officials will work with them on becoming a leader in mental health services.

As a child, Tzannes said she received mental health treatment at a Kaiser hospital and benefited from it.

She said striking was a last resort, but a necessary one.

“I believe in them and I think we can all come together on an agreement,” Tzannes said.

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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