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Kaiser Permanente’s mental health workers stage one-day strike in Santa Rosa

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Kaiser mental health workers in Sonoma County rallied Wednesday as part of a weeklong strike to urge the health care giant to hire more therapists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses and other staff.

Workers picketed in the rain in front of Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center, holding red and white signs that said, “Kaiser, don’t deny my patients mental health care.” The walkout, which was the result of simmering labor talks with the company over several months, was part of a statewide series of strikes this week by the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

The union, which represents more than 90 mental health care professionals in Santa Rosa, continues to negotiate with the company on a new contract to replace the labor pact that expired last year.

Kaiser officials blasted the union for its repeated call for short strikes within a year. The strikes amid contract negotiations are “disruptive to patient access, operational care and service,” said Michelle Gaskill-Hames, senior vice president of Kaiser’s hospital and health plan operations in Northern California.

Gaskill-Hames said that during the first three days of the union walkouts this week 30% of Kaiser’s mental health workers “chose to put their patients first and come to work.”

Tarek Salaway, senior vice president and Kaiser’s area manager in Marin and Sonoma counties, said the company is doing its best to meet the growing demand for mental health services and striving to do better.

“We are meeting or exceeding the established standard for first-time appointments for mental health,” he said, noting the company monitors patient records to ensure when a therapist recommends follow-up treatment patients get the additional therapy.

Willow Thorsen, a licensed clinical social worker and behavioral health consultant at Kaiser, said patients often wait six to eight weeks to see a therapist in person or begin a group therapy session.

Thorsen, who joined her co-workers on the picket line Wednesday in Santa Rosa, said changes Kaiser has made in recent years to address what state regulators have described as “deficiencies” in mental health services are insufficient.

“When they say they’re meeting their benchmarks, it’s not that patients are getting in to see a therapist in a timely manner or within the 10-day state mandate,” Thorsen said.

Kaiser has made big investments in appointment scheduling processes that make it appear as if patients are receiving timely initial assessments, Thorsen said. She said patients often have to navigate a gauntlet of telephone calls before they can talk to a therapist in person, including a triage call, intake assessment and even a call with a “mood nurse.”

By the time patients finally get to talk to someone, they’re angry and frustrated, forcing therapists to deal with psychological and emotional issues that could have been avoided had they been seen sooner, she said.

“We’re prolonging treatment, we’re prolonging recovery,” Thorsen said.

Salaway said mental health staffing has increased by 30% since 2015, with Kaiser hiring more than 500 therapists in California.

“In fact, we are investing $40 million to increase the number of individuals entering the mental health field,” the regional Kaiser executive said. “Our therapists are among the best paid in California, with excellent benefits.”

Kaiser’s contract proposal to the mental health workers’ union includes wage increases, benefits enhancements and more time in therapists’ schedules to see patients, which Salaway said are the things therapists have said they wanted.

Finally, he urged union leaders to get back to the negotiating table and work with a federal mediator to resolve labor differences and reach agreement with Kaiser on a new contract.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said the strike was a one-day event. Workers in Santa Rosa picketed for a day as part of the union's weeklong strike statewide. Also, a Kaiser executive cited a 30% increase in mental health staffing but said the company continues working to meet the needs of patients.

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