The National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents mental health employees at Kaiser Permanente facilities across the state, on Wednesday filed an official notice of intent to strike Jan. 12.
The union said about 2,600 mental health workers will engage in a weeklong strike protesting what union officials say is Kaiser’s failure to provide timely and adequate mental health services to patients. The union represents 65 mental health employees in Santa Rosa and nine in Petaluma, including psychotherapists and clinical social workers.
Union officials said workers will form 65 picket lines at more than 35 Kaiser locations across the state, and that more than 700 other Kaiser employees are expected to honor the picket lines.
The union said other Kaiser staff include optical workers in Northern California, as well as Southern California medical social workers, speech pathologists, audiologists, health educators, and registered dietitians. Those workers “also report problems with inadequate staffing,” according to a union press statement.
Kaiser representatives could not be reached immediately Wednesday afternoon for comment.
The union involved in the strike has for several years been drawing attention to what it contends is Kaiser’s insufficient staffing of its mental health services.
In 2011, the union released a report based on a survey of mental health clinicians that found, among other things, that the HMO severely understaffed its mental health services and failed to provide timely access to individual therapy as required by state law.
A year later the state Department of Managed Health Care, which regulates HMOs, determined after a routine survey of Kaiser mental health services that the HMO was not accurately tracking patients’ access to the Kaiser therapists.
The state agency also said Kaiser could not ensure that patients were offered timely initial appointments with therapists for nonurgent matters, in violation of state regulations.
The agency later levied a $4 million fine against Kaiser for what it termed serious deficiencies in providing timely access to mental health services. It was the second-largest fine in the history of the regulatory agency, which was created in 2000.
In September, Kaiser dropped its challenge of the fine and agreed to pay the $4 million. The HMO said it was doing so in part because it wanted to focus on making improvements to its mental health services. It unveiled a series of initiatives to improve the quality and availability of mental health services to its 7.3 million members in California.
Clement Papazian, president of NUHW’s Northern California chapter of mental health clinicians, said in a statement that delays in receiving mental health services can sometimes lead to “tragic outcomes” for patients who suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.
“We don’t want to see patients being ignored,” Papazian said in the statement. “Kaiser’s actions are doing real harm. Even suicides have been linked to Kaiser’s delays and denial of care.”
The planned Jan. 12 strike will be the longest walkout by union mental health workers, union officials said. Two strikes were held a few years ago, but those were only one- and two-day pickets.
Union officials said it is unclear how many patients will be affected by the strike, and that patients already are enduring long delays in care.
Notice of intent to strike was filed with both state and federal agencies.