Mental health workers reject Kaiser contract

Kaiser Permanente workers picketing during a five-day strike in December. (Photo: National Union of Healthcare Workers) United Healthcare Workers

Editor’s Note: This updates an earlier story. 

Mental health workers at Kaiser Permanente have overwhelmingly rejected a contract offer — a move that followed months of negotiations between Kaiser and the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

Negotiations between Kaiser and NUHW are continuing.

Some 88 percent of the NUHW  psychologists, psychiatric nurses, therapists and others voted last week to reject the contract, according to the union.

They have urged Kaiser to hire more personnel. Kaiser, based in Oakland, serves about 9 million health plan members in California.

Currently, there is just one mental health clinician for every 3,000 Kaiser members, according to NUHW, and first-time patients have to wait at least four weeks for their first one-on-one visit with a Kaiser mental health therapist.

Kaiser disputed those numbers, saying the system meets the standard that first-time appointments take place within 10 days 80 percent of the time.

Mental health clinicians claim that they are overworked and even have to book over their lunch break in order to meet as many patients as possible, with no cap on the number of patients they can see.

With around 90% of their time spent on meeting with patients, clinicians contend that they often do not have time for indirect care,  such as  meetings, writing treatment notes and following up with patients. Those are necessary tasks, they say, to ensure they are providing the best care possible.

The workers’s primary ask for Kaiser? Hire more staff.

According to NUHW, there are shortages across Kaiser facilities for mental health clinicians.

Kaiser says it has already hired new staff over the past year.

In a written statement, Kaiser said earlier that “meeting the increased demand for mental health services is a national challenge that faces all health care providers,” and expressed disappointment in “the decision of NUHW leadership to urge the rejection of the contract proposal and effectively postpone the improvements we agree need to be made immediately.”

Kaiser also described as “mischaracterizations” some statements from NUHW, noting that Kaiser had hired over 500 new therapists and expanded their mental health treatment locations.

However, NUHW said that while some mental clinicians had been hired, Kaiser has also increased their number of patients, leaving a large gap between the number of patients that need care and the number of workers that can serve them.

Kaiser said it has increased therapists by 30 percent, while the membership grew 23 percent.

Editor’s Note: Corrects 3rd graf original on Kaiser’s health plan members in California to 9 million, and includes Kaiser response to first-time appointments, 5th graf.  Sarah Abdeshahian is a Capitol Weekly intern from the University of California, Berkeley.

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