Kaiser braces for strike Monday by mental health clinicians

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A weeklong strike is slated to start Monday in California as the next chapter in a four-year battle between Kaiser Permanente and its mental health clinicians over what union leaders say is the health care provider’s failure to adequately serve patients.

As many as 2,600 psychologists, therapists and other mental health workers statewide are expected to join the strike, plus an additional 700 Kaiser employees in other areas, according to the National Union of Healthcare Workers. The union represents 65 mental health employees in Santa Rosa and nine in Petaluma.

In preparation for the strike, Kaiser has been contacting patients and seeking to determine which appointments can be rescheduled to a later time, said Vice President John Nelson.

“We certainly intend to meet any urgent needs next week,” Nelson said.

The conflict comes at a time when both sides say that the nation’s mental health system needs great improvement. The disagreement concerns whether Kaiser is part of the problem or the solution.

When the clinicians began bargaining with Kaiser four years ago, “their No. 1 issue was ‘you’re forcing us to break the law,’” said Sal Roselli, the union’s president. Among their concerns, he said, was that many patients weren’t initially being seen within 10 business days of a request as required by California law.

Since then, Roselli said, the state Department of Managed Health Care has levied a $4 million fine against Kaiser for what it termed serious deficiencies in providing timely access to mental health services. Class action suits representing Kaiser mental health patients have been filed, and in Sonoma County last September a number of speakers at a public forum criticized the HMO for poor mental health services.

“These clinicians have just said ‘enough is enough,’” Roselli said of the strike.

Nelson acknowledged that Kaiser, like the entire medical system, is “not where we want to be” in terms of providing mental health care. But he maintained that the HMO remains among the highest rated for its mental health services and it has worked hard to bring improvements.

For example, he said, in the past three years Kaiser has increased its staff of therapists in California by 25 percent, while its total patient membership in that period grew by 8 percent.

“We’re hiring therapists at three times the rate of membership growth,” Nelson said.

Nelson said Kaiser has reached labor agreements with every one of its more than 30 unions during the nearly five-year period it has been in negotiations with the mental health workers union. That union, he said, has consistently followed a strategy of making allegations against the HMO because “apparently they think it will get them a better contract agreement.”

But Roselli noted that for more than four years his members have foregone raises that other Kaiser employees received. They did so, he said, for one reason: “to force Kaiser into providing adequate care.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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