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One Month Into Grinding Strike, Negotiations Break Down Between Kaiser Permanente and Mental Health Workers

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Striking workers wearing red shirts and holding signs march on the street.
Kaiser mental health care workers and supporters march from Oakland Kaiser Medical Center to the health care company's nearby corporate headquarters on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022, during the first week of their strike. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Negotiations between Kaiser Permanente and the union representing its mental health care workers collapsed Wednesday night, one month into a strike that still has no end in sight.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents some 2,000 Kaiser psychologists, therapists, social workers and chemical dependency counselors in Northern California, said in a statement that Kaiser refused to consider proposals to increase staffing and provide therapists with additional time to complete crucial administrative work. The union has also demanded the company cap caseloads if therapists are unable to see patients as quickly as state law requires.

Kaiser declined to schedule future bargaining sessions, leaving workers and their many thousands of patients in an ongoing state of limbo, union officials said.

“It’s so frustrating to be on the front lines of a mental health crisis only to have your employer be in complete denial about it,” Matt Hannon, a Kaiser psychologist in South San Francisco, and a member of the union’s bargaining committee, said in a statement. “Kaiser officials showed once again that they have no interest in providing timely mental health care that complies with state law or meets the needs of patients.”

Kaiser said in a statement that it has already made extensive compromises, including concessions on pay, and that the union is essentially pushing for its workers to spend less time with patients in need.

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“Frustratingly, NUHW leadership continued to refuse to resolve any remaining issues or acknowledge how far Kaiser Permanente has already moved for the sake of reaching agreement,” a spokesperson for the Oakland-based company said.

But the union emphasizes that the ongoing fight is about staffing resources, not compensation, noting that it already agreed to Kaiser's wage-increase offer. It argues that Kaiser has failed to meaningfully address the severe mental health staffing shortages at its facilities that have resulted in massive turnover rates among workers and excessive wait times for patients.

The union has also accused the company of not providing its mental health patients timely access to services during the strike, in violation of state law, a claim currently under investigation.

The California Department of Managed Health Care said in a statement that it is “concerned about the potential for immediate harm to enrollees based on the very serious nature of allegations that the plan is not providing timely appointments to enrollees required by the law.”

As part of their investigation, state regulators are assessing whether Kaiser made sufficient arrangements to provide out-of-network services to patients in anticipation of the strike.

When the investigation was announced, the health care giant said it was in the process of reaching agreements with hundreds of community-based mental health care providers to partially fill the void left by striking workers.

Kaiser also said it is aggressively working to recruit and hire more therapists.

But Fred Seavey, a NUHW research director, told KQED last month that Kaiser has a history of failing to provide timely care, even though it has the resources to do so.

“Members are paying their premiums. They deserve to receive the care that they need and they paid for,” Seavey said. “If an HMO doesn’t have enough providers available, then it must arrange for members to get care from out-of-network providers at no additional cost to the member.”

Union members say they are determined to keep striking until Kaiser makes more concessions, but as the strike enters its second month, and workers remain unpaid, many are feeling the financial impact of not receiving their paychecks.

“It’s been a hard month, but going without a paycheck is nothing compared to what our patients have endured for years at Kaiser waiting months between therapy sessions,” Kimberly Hollingsworth-Hornor, a Kaiser therapist in Fresno and bargaining committee member, said in a statement. “We are going to keep striking until Kaiser stops gambling with patient lives and works with therapists to create a system that provides patients the care they need to get better.”

KQED's Sara Hossaini contributed reporting to this story.

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