Over 2,000 unionized therapists, social workers and mental health clinicians at Kaiser Permanente Northern California are on strike until the nation’s largest non-profit health care institution improves access to mental health care for their patients.
Members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) are picketing in front of Kaiser Permanente facilities all across Northern California, including San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and Fresno. This past Monday marked the start of the second week of their open-ended strike, which began on August 15 and will not end until an agreement on a new contract is reached.
Kaiser patients seeking mental healthcare often have to wait 3 to 4 months in between their initial intake appointment and when their care formally begins.
“That’s too long and it’s just not good care,” says Rishi Nijhon, a therapist in the Adult Psychiatry department at Kaiser Oakland. “Patients are really discouraged and disheartened, and it’s not clinically appropriate. It is very vulnerable to acknowledge that you need help, and so when patients are met with this system that says, ‘See you in 3 months,’ they say ‘I wish I never opened my mouth.’”
Karen Orsulak, the coordinator for the Teen Intensive Outpatient Program at Kaiser Oakland, agrees that delays in care negatively impact mental health. As an employee at Kaiser for the past 25 years and an NUHW member for the last 12 years, Karen works with teenage patients who have “serious mental illnesses” — often after they have been hospitalized due to the severity of their mental health conditions.
“It’s because they haven’t been seen. They initially come in with some depression or bullying or trauma and they aren’t seen soon enough or frequently enough, and so their situation gets worse. They become more depressed and they even become suicidal, or they end up geting hospitalized. Then they come to us [in the Teen Intensive Outpatient Program] and a lot of times they say, ‘Finally, we’re getting the care we need.’ But they shouldn’t have to end up in the hospital or become suicidal to get the care they need.”
To be able to provide better care for their patients, NUHW members are calling for increased staffing and more time in their work day for responsibilities additional to their regular patient encounters: for documentation and for responding to voicemails and patient messages.
“We are asking for more time in our work day to be able to meet patient needs. [In response,] Kaiser offered 8 additional minutes a day, which is absolutely insulting,” says Rishi.
Mental health workers at Kaiser often have to overexert themselves, regularly working 50- to 60-hour work weeks without additional pay. The need for their services has only increased in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I have to be the glue that holds together the cracks of this broken system,” says Rishi. “I have to overbook my schedule. I have to see someone during lunch. I have to stay late so I can respond to patients who message me. And I’m not given enough time during my work day to do so.”
The strains of working within this system have led to numerous clinicians leaving Kaiser. “Our clinicians are drowning. In the last year, we have lost 377 staff members, and it’s because of the working conditions we’re under.”
NUHW’s contract with Kaiser Permanente Northern California expired over a year ago. Despite sitting on over $54 billion in reserves and making over $8 billion in profits last year, Kaiser refuses to engage in good faith bargaining. Yet, Kaiser’s intransigence is not enough to dampen high spirits on the picket lines.
“We get a lot of support from our patients,” says Karen. “Our patients always say: ‘We understand. Do what you need to do. We are behind you.’ When we’re out here striking, we get a lot of people cheering.”
“It’s been a very humbling experience,” adds Rishi. “To hear the stories of my colleagues who are also under tremendous stress and have been disheartened by the care they’re partaking in, it has strengthened our vision.”
Rishi continued, “It’s humbling to feel a part of a collective. We’re all having the same challenges; it’s not just one clinic. This is a systemwide issue and Kaiser is avoiding responsibility because it’s going to cost them money … Mental health care is health care, but it’s not always treated as such. Kaiser needs to allocate resources to providing quality mental health care.”
More information on the strike can be found at the National Union of Healthcare Workers’ website.
You can also support financially by donating via Venmo to @KPStrikeFund.