Kaiser Mental Health Clinicians Authorize Strike

Kaiser Permanente's newly opened medical center in Oakland. (Lisa Aliferis/KQED)
Kaiser Permanente's newly opened medical center in Oakland. (Lisa Aliferis/KQED) (Lisa Aliferis/KQED)

A union of 2,500 mental health clinicians at Kaiser have voted to authorize a strike, just one week after Kaiser's nurses went on strike for two days.

In September, Kaiser agreed to pay a $4-million fine levied by state regulators. The Department of Managed Health Care found patients were subject to excessively long wait times to get a therapy appointment, or were shuttled into groups when they wanted individual therapy.

Psychiatric social worker Clement Papazian says various fixes, like after-hours appointments, still aren't meeting demand.

"Kaiser has attempted to make some changes, but they're woefully inadequate in really addressing the full nature of the problem," he says. "Our mental health workers are really fed up."

These complaints are part of a long, drawn-out contract negotiation between Kaiser and its psychologists and therapists. Bargaining has been dragging on for four years with no settlement. And the small, scrappy National Union of Healthcare Workers is eager to make a name for itself.

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Union president Sal Rosselli says the threat of a statewide strike will strengthen the union's position when they return to the table next month.

"We've had it," Rosselli said. "We're drawing a line in the sand. And we'll be presenting Kaiser with a final offer to resolve this crisis."

In a statement, Kaiser was critical of the union's strike vote:

“After a long hiatus, NUHW has now approached Kaiser Permanente to resume bargaining in Northern California. But for the union to threaten a strike before we even meet, and to resort to clichéd bargaining tactics, makes us concerned about the union’s intentions. We hope the union will join us in seeking solutions to the challenges we face. But whichever way the union chooses to go, we are going to continue to work hard on our own to make progress.”

Kaiser says the union has resisted several of its proposals, like sending some patients to non-Kaiser therapists for treatment. It says increasing access to mental health care is a challenge faced by the entire health care industry, and Kaiser is working hard to make improvements.