Kaiser Permanente

Kaiser Permanente mental health workers were striking at the Fontana hospital on Dec. 10.  (Contributed photo by Mike Myers)

Mental health workers at the Kaiser Permanente Fontana Medical Center on Dec. 10 joined other members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers in a planned five-day strike that included the Northern and Southern California Kaiser Permanente hospital network.

Marty Needleman, a spokesperson for the strikers and a psychiatric social worker at the Montclair clinic, said that "today's strike is about mental health patients being denied adequate care" because there aren't enough mental health staff personnel to handle the membership load.

Workers walking the strike line said this issue has been going on for 20 years.

A strike three years ago was also about the lack of staff needed to treat the Kaiser members who need mental health services, the workers said. According to Needleman, they came to an agreement with the Department of Mental Health. It was mandated that Kaiser would conduct an intake session within 14 days if a member requested a mental health consult. However, they did not reach an agreement on how to manage follow-up care for a patient, and patients have to wait months without any type of care for another visit, Needleman said.

Kaiser does send patients for outside contracted care, but according to Needleman, 70-80 percent of those patients return to a Kaiser facility, because they don't feel like they are getting the help they need. When these patients return to a Kaiser facility, that means the mental health care workers still don't have the staff they need to help their patients, Needleman said.

Mental health workers walking the strike line say people who have chronic conditions such as depression, anxiety, suicidal or homicidal ideations need treatment visits every 2-4 weeks.

"When patients aren't getting adequate care, they feel separated and they are suffering," Needleman said, adding that the patients usually use the emergency room to get help for their mental health needs.

The strike was expected to last for five days, Needleman said. The strikers were planning to go to the Ontario facility on Dec. 11 and return to Fontana on Dec. 13. Patients will still be able to get mental care help, but managers will be assessing the patients until the strike is over, Needleman said.

----- IN RESPONSE to the strike, Kaiser Permanente released a statement which read in part:

"We want our members and patients to know that during this strike, we are working hard to deliver high-quality care and services. All our hospitals and medical offices are open. Anyone in need of urgent mental health or other care will receive the services they require, although some non-urgent services are being rescheduled. We apologize for any inconvenience caused by this unnecessary strike.

"It's particularly disheartening that union leadership would call this strike during the holiday season, when many of our patients with mental health needs may be at their most vulnerable.

"Alongside our therapists, Kaiser Permanente has been on a path to be the best mental health and addiction care program in the nation. The quality of the care we provide has been recognized by the state's Office of the Patient Advocate, and by national quality organizations. We don't think there is any other organization that is doing more than we are to make mental health care better in the United States. We are committed to doing even more, to innovate, to advance care, and to continually seek to improve what we do."

Kaiser has been hiring therapists, increasing its staff by 30 percent (more than 500 new therapists in California) since 2015, even though there is a national shortage, Kaiser Permanente said.

"We've invested $175 million to expand and improve our mental health care offices, to provide environments that offer our patients convenience, comfort and privacy," Kaiser Permanente said.

Kaiser Permanente is the highest paying employer for mental health workers in California. The union is demanding wage increases that would be even higher, Kaiser Permanente said.

"Across Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, the majority of psychologists earn $138,000 or more, and the majority of social workers earn $111,000 or more. In Southern California, the majority of psychologists earn $135,000 or more, and the majority of social workers earn $109,000 or more," Kaiser Permanente said.

"The union's principal demands at the bargaining table have not been about improving care and access. Rather, in addition to seeking even higher wages and benefits, the union is demanding changes to performance standards that would reduce, not increase, the availability of mental health care for our patients.

"The union wants to reduce the amount of time caregivers spend seeing patients, from an average of 75 percent of time they agreed to in 2015. This would mean fewer appointments for our patients."

Kaiser Permanente said it is "offering wage increases which would keep our expert therapists among the best compensated in their profession, and continue to ensure that we attract and retain the most highly skilled professionals.

"Despite the union leadership's tactics, we are committed to responsibly reaching a new contract agreement. We value our therapists and are calling on them to talk to their union leadership and urge them to bargain constructively, and stop putting our patients in the middle of their contract demands."

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