Kaiser Mental Health Workers Strike Demands 'No More Suicides'

Mental health workers at one of California’s biggest medical care providers began a week-long strike on Monday, seeking to draw attention to low staffing levels that have already led to state investigations, a hefty fine and class-action lawsuits triggered by the deaths of patients whose families blame Kaiser Permanente for failing to provide the care they needed.

About 3,000 psychologists, therapists and social workers employed by Kaiser Permanente set up picket lines outside their workplaces up and down the Golden State, waving banners written in English and Spanish that accused Kaiser of neglecting its patients and demanded: “No more suicides”.

“We don’t want to see patients being ignored. Kaiser’s actions are doing real harm,” said Clement Papazian, a regional leader of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which is organising the walkout.

According to the union, Kaiser patients are forced to wait weeks or even months for treatment for debilitating, occasionally life-threatening conditions. A 2013 investigation by California’s Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) found that Kaiser was understaffing its mental health facilities, falsifying appointment records to conceal the length of patients’ wait times and offering patients misleading information about the care available.

Since then, the NUHW says, Kaiser has done better at meeting a state-imposed 10-day deadline for offering patients a first appointment, but at the expense of offering timely follow-up appointments.

Kaiser agreed in September to pay a $4m fine imposed by the state in the wake of the report, but argues that it has been expanding its mental health staff in line with increasing patient numbers – a 25% increase since 2011. In a statement, the company accused the union of obstructionism and said the strike would only make life for Kaiser patients more difficult.

“Since its creation in 2009,” a Kaiser spokesman, John Nelson, said, “NUHW stands alone as the only union that has been unwilling or unable to reach a fair agreement concerning a contract … Kaiser Permanente is committed to finding a solution that benefits our employees and NUHW must have the same commitment.”

This is the third walkout organised by NUHW in the past three years, although the other two lasted one day only. The goal is to apply maximum pressure on Kaiser as it awaits the results of a follow-up investigation by the state DMHC.

Unlike many healthcare providers in the US, Kaiser offers its patients a closed system of doctors, hospitals and other healthcare services that has often been praised for its cost-effectiveness and its efficiency at delivering preventive care in particular.

Before the advent of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Kaiser tended to turn away fewer patients and offer better insurance rates than many other healthcare providers.

Since the ACA kicked in last year, Kaiser has reported an increase in patient numbers, from about 9 million nationwide to about 9.25 million. Most are inCalifornia, Kaiser’s home state, but the company operates all along the West Coast, in Hawaii, Georgia and Colorado, and in the area immediately surrounding Washington DC.

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