‘We’re drowning’: Why Kaiser mental health workers are on strike

But those on strike said the severity of the shortage is unique to Kaiser, and that burnout and poor working conditions are contributing to low retention of existing employees and making it difficult for the company to recruit new employees.

“There’s no shortage of doctors. There’s just a shortage of doctors who want to work for Kaiser,” Marcucci-Morris said. “We went into this field to help people, and it’s hard to recruit therapists when you know that Kaiser’s reputation makes people wait so long for therapy sessions. It’s really, really unethical. And I personally have a handful of Colleagues and friends who are therapists with time in their schedules that I have tried to recruit to Kaiser. But the reputation is so bad.”

It is more attractive, the strikers said, for qualified therapists to work for a private practice. “Workers just don’t want to work for Kaiser anymore, and that’s the real crisis we’re facing,” Marcucci-Morris said.

The union said the rate at which mental health doctors are leaving Kaiser nearly doubled last year, with 668 doctors leaving between June 2021 and May 2022, up from 335 the year before. In a union survey of 200 of those leaving doctors, 85% said they were leaving because their workload was unsustainable or because they felt they didn’t have enough time to complete the job, and 76% said they couldn’t “treat to patients online. with the standards of care and medical necessity”.

“We need to grow the mental health workforce, there’s no question about that,” California State Senator Scott Wiener told the KQED Forum. “It’s also the case that the shortage is not as severe right now as the health plans say… health plans can take steps to expand their workforce, including paying better, providing better reimbursement to private providers , and those are investments they should be making that they haven’t made.”

“I don’t think it’s the case that they just give up and say, we have some challenges with the workforce and so we’re going to make people wait three months,” he added. “We have a real shortage of physical health care providers, but we do not tolerate in physical health what we have long tolerated in mental health, which in effect denies people access to life-saving care.” .

a baby in a stroller as part of a protest
Kaiser mental health care workers carry signs on the picket line in front of Oakland’s Kaiser Medical Center on Friday, August 19, 2022, the fifth day of an indefinite strike. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Has California passed any recent laws to address this shortage?

Senate Bill 221, which passed in 2021 and went into effect July 1, 2022, said that “health plans, including Kaiser, must provide timely access to mental health and addiction treatment,” Senator Wiener told Forum. “And that means an early first visit.”

The law codifies existing Department of Managed Health Care and Department of Insurance regulations that require a health care service plan or insurer to ensure that “for a member who requests a non-urgent appointment with a mental health care provider non-physician…appointments are offered within 10 business days of requesting an appointment.” Follow-up visits should take place within two weeks, Wiener added.

Senate Bill 858, which recently passed on the floor of the California State Assembly and will now go to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk, would update the way health insurance companies are fined for violations, something that has not been updated or adjusted by inflation since the 1970s, Sausage said. Currently, the maximum possible fine is $2,500 per violation; the bill, if approved, would increase that amount to $25,000.

“We think that will create a much greater incentive to really comply with the law and give people timely and appropriate access to health care,” he said.

What exactly are the strikers asking for? What is the current status of the negotiations?

In the negotiations that led to the strike, the National Union of Healthcare Workers accepted Kaiser’s offer of a pay increase. But the union stood by its demand that nine hours a week, instead of the current six hours, be allocated for administrative work. Kaiser rejected that demand, arguing that he would not leave enough time to see patients. The company’s counter offer of an additional 1.2 hours for that job was flatly rejected.

“We wouldn’t be on strike right now if money was the main [issue]”Marcucci-Morris said, pointing to burnout, retention issues and low morale, as well as what the union describes as the lack of a clear plan for how the company will meet the requirements laid out by SB 221.

“It’s not going to solve the problems to buy the therapists and pay us more,” he said. “What good is more pay when you’re drowning and can’t get up for air?”

How is the strike affecting patients who need care?

Kaiser is legally required to continue providing care to its members during a labor strike.

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