Thousands of Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians across California walked off the job Monday to start a five-day strike calling for the HMO to increase staffing and resources for mental health services.
Patients often wait more than a month for an appointment because there is only one full-time mental health clinician for every 3,000 Kaiser members in California, according to the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
"Clinicians are booked solid for weeks and patients are waiting far too long for therapy appointments," said Clem Papazian, a Kaiser-licensed clinical social worker.
Psychologists, therapists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and addiction medicine specialists will be among 4,000 clinicians on picket lines at several locations around the state, including at Kaiser's San Francisco Medical Center and the San Jose Medical Center, said union spokesman Matt Artz.
Kaiser representatives on Saturday maintained the union's stance at the bargaining table was not about improving care and access for patients.
"Rather, in addition to seeking even higher wages and benefits, the union is demanding changes to performance standards that would reduce, not increase, the availability of mental health care for our patients," said Michelle Gaskill-Hames, chief nurse executive for Kaiser Permanente Northern California.
Kaiser has been hiring therapists, increasing staff by 30 percent since 2015 and has invested $175 million to expand and improve mental health care offices, Gaskill-Hames said.
Former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, founder of The Kennedy Forum, will join the clinicians' strike Monday in San Francisco and Tuesday in Oakland. Kennedy will also appear at a mental health care forum from 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Oakland Masonic Center, 3903 Broadway.
"The CDC recently reported that life expectancy has dropped yet again due to rising numbers of overdoses and suicides," Kennedy said in a union news release. "Timely access to care is critical. Insurers who subject those with mental health and substance use disorders to a separate and unequal system of care must be held accountable."
All Kaiser hospitals and medical offices will remain open during the strike, Gaskill-Hames said. Patients needing urgent mental health or other care will receive the services, but some non-urgent services are being postponed, she said.