Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians strike for patient care
Marilyn Bechtel / PW

OAKLAND, Calif.—Some 4,000 mental health clinicians—psychologists, psychiatric nurses, therapists, and other health professionals caring for Kaiser Permanente patients at over 100 facilities throughout California—began a one-week strike Dec. 16.

At the top of their list, they are demanding that their patients should be able to receive the same prompt, comprehensive services the giant health care corporation provides patients suffering physical ailments. They are also calling for compensation matching that of other comparable Kaiser staff.

The clinicians, members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, have been without a contract since the end of September 2018. They conducted a one-week statewide strike in December 2018 and have held smaller actions at Kaiser facilities around the state.

Marilyn Bechtel / PW

The strikers say Kaiser clinics are so severely understaffed that patients are routinely forced to wait six to eight weeks for therapy appointments and overbooked clinicians must work after hours and during their lunch breaks trying to help patients requiring immediate care. Now just one clinician is available for every 3,000 Kaiser patients.

They also say that with Kaiser’s cash reserves topping $42 billion, plans for a new $900 million office tower in Oakland, and payment of $295 million to the Golden State Warriors to name the area around the team’s new arena “Thrive City,” it’s clear the corporation has the resources to staff its mental health facilities adequately.

Here, on Dec. 17, hundreds of clinicians drew honks of support from car and truck drivers, and cheers from passers-by, as they marched down Broadway from Kaiser’s main hospital to its corporate headquarters in downtown Oakland.

At the same time, clinicians were also picketing and rallying at Kaiser’s Los Angeles Medical Center and at its Fresno Medical Center in the Central Valley.

Before starting on their march, the mental health professionals shared accounts of the difficulties they all face daily.

Clement Papazian, a longtime social worker in the psychiatric emergency department at the Kaiser Oakland Medical Center, told the crowd that with new and returning patients currently waiting up to seven weeks for appointments, “To put it simply, people are getting sicker from needing to wait—sometimes much sicker. Patients don’t come to see us when things are going well—they come when things are going to hell.”

Papazian called the current situation at Kaiser “a double assault,” because clinicians suffer, too, when they can’t provide the care their patients urgently need. As many strikers in the crowd held signs in memory of Kaiser members who committed suicide after care was delayed, Papazian called on his co-workers and community supporters to “mark this ongoing injustice and muster our strength and conviction to never stop demanding more and better from Kaiser.”

As the strikers massed in front of Kaiser’s corporate headquarters, preparing to rally, they welcomed community and labor supporters, including members of East Bay DSA, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, Alameda Labor Council, and Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. Also in the crowd was Rudy Gonzalez, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council.

NUHW President Sal Rosselli told the rally the political support the strikers are receiving from state legislative leaders and Gov. Gavin Newsom is “unprecedented in any labor fight.” While the union’s first goal is to achieve a new contract, he said, “the long-term goal is to achieve parity, which will take a number of years.”

As the legislature starts its 2020 session next month, Rosselli said, many bills affecting Kaiser are in the pipeline, including one by Assemblymember Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, that would require all mental health providers, including Kaiser, to provide regular therapy within 10 days unless the clinician decides that is not necessary.

Among area elected officials addressing the strikers was Oakland City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, who emphasized that health care, including mental health care, is a human right.

Recalling the clinicians’ emphasis on the growing mental health crisis youth are facing today, Bas told how her daughter came home from high school earlier this year and told her a young boy had committed suicide. “I don’t know what his particular situation was,” Bas said, “but I do know that when we say patients have to wait weeks and months before their next appointment, we are risking lives. That is completely unacceptable.”

Also addressing the strikers were Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, and Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb. State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, were represented by leading staff members.

Marilyn Bechtel / PW

San Francisco and Alameda County Supervisors, and the Berkeley City Council, have taken strong positions supporting the clinicians’ demands for adequate mental health care at Kaiser.

On Dec. 19, clinicians from all over the state will gather in Sacramento, where they will march from the State Capitol Building to the headquarters of the state Department of Managed Health Care, to demand stronger enforcement of laws and regulations requiring all health plans in the state to provide the same access to mental health care as to all the other medical services they provide.

The clinicians’ week-long strike is the latest action in a struggle dating back to 2011, when their complaint about inadequate mental health care launched an investigation that brought Kaiser a $4 million fine and an order to stop limiting care in violation of state law.

NUHW says both sides have tentatively agreed to start a collaborative process to reinvent Kaiser’s mental health care system. But because Kaiser has failed to follow through on such efforts before, the clinicians say they want provisions written in their contract guaranteeing enough time to do their jobs well, including record-keeping, communicating with social service agencies, and answering calls and emails from patients who can’t be seen. They also want better access to return appointments and crisis services in every clinic so patients don’t have to be hospitalized unnecessarily and clinicians don’t have to cancel other appointments to treat patients in acute need of care.

The union also says Kaiser is demanding the clinicians agree to poorer retirement and health benefits than Kaiser provides over 120,000 other employees in California.


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.