More than 4,000 mental health workers at Kaiser hospitals are wrapping up a spirited five-day strike that began on Dec. 10. The workers include therapists and clinicians across the state who are represented by the National Union of Health Workers. Their contract expired in September.

While wages and benefits are important demands, the key issue in the strike is the lack of sufficient staff in Kaiser’s mental health departments, resulting in excessive waiting times for initial diagnostic appointments and follow-up treatment for mental illness and addiction.

Speaking to Liberation News, NUHW President Sal Roselli called the lack of parity and adequate care for mental health patients “the civil rights issue of our time.”

More than 40 million people are estimated to suffer from mental illness and/or addiction, including millions of children and teenagers. But only about one-third are receiving treatment, and for many the treatments do not meet their needs due to their infrequency. The rates of drug, especially opioid, addiction and youth suicide are rising sharply.

Kathy Ray, a psychiatric social worker for 24 years at Walnut Creek Kaiser and a NUHW shop steward, told a public forum organized by the union on Dec. 11: “Children who are in crisis shouldn’t have to wait six to eight weeks to make an appointment with a therapist. The priority must be patients above profits. My worst time is when I have to tell families how long it will be until the next appointment.”

Kaiser workers and patients testified in the forum about the dangerous and sometimes deadly impact of long waits for initial appointments and subsequent treatment, often as long as six to eight weeks. Oh Sun Yu, a case manager at Santa Clara Kaiser, testified to Kaiser patients with no previous mental health issues committing suicide while awaiting an intake appointment.

At the same time as it refuses to hire adequate mental health staff, Kaiser is raking in record profits, $9.8 billion since 2016, and is sitting on $42.9 billion in cash and other assets. Kaiser’s CEO, Bernard Tyson, got a $6 million dollar raise last year to $16 million, and 36 Kaiser executives each  make more than $1 million.

The issue of parity

A key issue is parity, meaning equality of treatment for mental health and addiction services with other services, which is mandated in federal and state laws. But as Roselli put it: “Nobody has parity. And what began with the Kaiser strike has implications far beyond California.”

Because Kaiser workers are unionized, Roselli pointed out they are in a position to take action that the majority of mental health providers who are non-union find difficult if not impossible to do.

NUHW picket in San Francisco | Photo: Richard Becker

The last two governors of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown, bowed to powerful health care corporations and vetoed bills to put real teeth into the state’s parity laws. In June 2013, the state Department of Managed Health Care fined Kaiser $4 million for violations of the California Mental Health Parity Act. But today, more than five years later, the lack of parity remains and Kaiser mental health services remain severely underfunded and understaffed. In that time, more than a million additional patients have enrolled in Kaiser.

Kaiser has increasingly turned to outsourcing to independent mental health contractors while also seeking to cut the initial diagnostic intake in half. But with the lack of necessary hires, the result, according to Kaiser workers, is a “rapid access to delayed care.”

What the Kaiser workers are fighting for

The Kaiser workers are seeking:

1) Increased availability of treatment and end to 1-2 month waits;

2) Hiring more clinicians;

3) Clinical judgement-management must accept the clinician’s diagnosis and prescribed treatment;

4) Recruit and retain staff by assuring therapists and clinicians receive the same increases in pay and benefits as other Kaiser staff;

5) Coordinated care though boosting internal staff, not outsourcing.

The Kaiser mental health workers in the NUHW are standing strong. Their victory will be a victory for and deserves the support of all working people.

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