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Kaiser Mental Health Workers Launch 7-Day Strike

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Kaiser Permanente’s medical center in Oakland. (Lisa Aliferis/KQED)
Kaiser Permanente’s medical center in Oakland. (Lisa Aliferis/KQED) (Lisa Aliferis/KQED)

By April Dembosky

Mental health clinicians at Kaiser are walking off the job Monday, commencing a week-long, statewide strike. Their main complaint: Kaiser isn't hiring enough therapists and psychologists to see patients in a timely manner.

But the strike also comes after four years of contract negotiations between Kaiser and the National Union of Healthcare Workers have yielded few agreements.

"We’ve tried one and two day actions in the past. Kaiser is not paying attention to that," says Clement Papazian, a social worker at Kaiser and a local union representative. "We feel like it’s the appropriate time to escalate these actions."

Kaiser called the strike "unnecessary and counterproductive."


John Nelson, Kaiser's vice president of government relations, says the the hospital system is meeting its patients' mental health needs, even after Kaiser has taken on thousands of new patients under the Affordable Care Act.

"Since 2011, we’ve grown membership by eight percent in California. We’ve increased the number of therapists in California who work at Kaiser Permanente by 25 percent," Nelson said. "That's quite an accomplishment."

Nelson said that health care systems across the country have been having difficulty hiring enough therapists and psychologists, because of a shortage of professionals. He said there isn't enough incentive to get people to enter the field.

"There are challenges in encouraging folks to pursue that training and to go to school and complete the long licensing process," he said.

Kaiser has faced the ire of state regulators over wait times for mental health care. In 2013, the Department of Managed Health Care fined Kaiser $4 million over long wait times for mental health care. Kaiser initially contested the fine, but agreed to pay it last September -- while still insisting it had not violated regulations.

Nelson insisted the strike was really a bargaining strategy by the union. The latest issue to be debated in contract negotiations is retiree health benefits.

"They want to carve out retiree health care," said Clement Papazian. He says Kaiser's latest proposal is to put current employees, once they retire, on a "substandard" Medicare plan. "It’s a much less desirable health care benefit, and it's a bitter pill for those of us who work in health care and expend a career providing these services."

The union plans to hold rallies outside Kaiser facilities in Northern and Southern California throughout the week.

Nelson says Kaiser has enough non-union staff to handle any urgent psychiatric needs during the strike, but some routine therapy appointments will be canceled.

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