Kaiser Workers Strike To Protest Cost-Cutting, Suicides

Mental health clinicians from Kaiser’s Oakland Medical Center launched a one-day strike Wednesday to address understaffing and cost-cutting in Kaiser’s mental health services. The clinicians say Kaiser’s policies have not only impacted patients in Oakland patients but throughout the state, leading to severe hardships, and even several suicides.

About 35 mental health clinicians, including therapists, counselors, social workers and psychologists were joined by nurses, patients and their families as they marched, picketed and sang outside the medical center.

The employeees, all members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, said they were protesting Kaiser’s efforts to implement policies in Oakland that have been used in Redwood City, where six Kaiser mental health patients have committed suicide.

Kaiser spokesperson Gerri Ginsburg said that Kaiser was taking the union's claim regarding suicide extremely seriously.

"While by law we can't discuss specific patients, I can say that we investigated this allegation when it was first made some months ago and found nothing to support it," he said.

According to the picketers, Kaiser members in dire need of psychiatric help are often required to wait months for appointments, which they called a violation of state law. When they do end up getting an appointment, Kaiser funneled them into group therapy instead of individualized care, they said.

"We strongly disagree with the union’s claims that this [work stoppage] is about the quality of mental health care at Kaiser Permanente," Don Mordecai, Kaiser's director of mental health, said in a statement. "This is about labor disputes at the Oakland Medical Center with the NUHW."

The clinicians said they were concerned that the problems at the Oakland Medical Center would increase as hundreds of thousands of California residents became Kaiser members under the Affordable Care Act.

"We are failing our patients, and for some the failures can prove fatal," said Clement Papazian, a social worker at Kaiser's Oakland Medical Center. "Kaiser Permanente's policies are forcing mental health clinicians throughout the state to provide substandard care."

A number of families have joined a class action lawsuit against Kaiser, citing inadequate mental health services. The lead plaintiff, Susan Futterman Paroutaud, sued Kaiser over the 2012 death of her husband. The lawsuit states that Fred Paroutaud, a composer and pianist diagnosed as bipolar, hanged himself in his home after repeated attempts to secure an appointment with Kaiser's mental health department.

Kaiser clinicians worked with NUHW since 2011 to document Kaiser's policies. Their efforts resulted in a report that caught the attention of California's Department of Managed Health Care, which confirmed the findings and fined Kaiser $4 million for delaying patients' access to mental health services, NUHW said.

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