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Striking mental health clinicians reject Kaiser contract offer

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Mental health therapists rejected Kaiser Permanente’s latest contract offer with a vote of 1,349 to 222, opting to stay out on strike rather than accept what they described as incremental changes that will not remedy patients’ long waits for treatment.

The rejection means the strike will head into its seventh week as the union and Kaiser remain at odds over staffing and workload issues.

“We presented Kaiser officials detailed proposals to increase staffing and improve access to care in the first negotiating session 14 months ago, and we won’t accept a contract that ignores those issues,” said Ilana Marcucci-Morris, a Kaiser therapist in Oakland and a member of her union’s bargaining team. “At this point, Kaiser executives can’t have any misconceptions about what it will take to secure a contract. We’re ready to negotiate around the clock to get an agreement signed as quickly as possible. It’s time for Kaiser to return to the bargaining table and end this strike.”

Therapists, represented by the National Union of Health Care Workers, said Kaiser members routinely wait months to see their clients in Sacramento and elsewhere around Northern California after an initial intake session to assess their needs.

Kaiser members also have contacted The Sacramento Bee to share how long waits for treatment affected them or their family members, saying they felt trapped in a “circle of horror” because the company left them to search for a therapist with the right credentials who was accepting new patients.

Kaiser Permanente released a statement, noting that 60% of therapists had returned to care for their patients as the strike continues.

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“It is unfortunate that union leadership pressed members for a no vote, with assurances they would get more from continued contract bargaining,” Kaiser leaders said. “The ‘more’ that union leaders have identified will reduce access to mental health care for our members, and we have been clear we are not willing to do that.”

The company and union have been at odds over how much time therapists should have to take care of patients’ needs outside therapy sessions. Mental health providers have said that, in addition to putting their notes in Kaiser’s system, they often must connect patients with other resources and use the tools of their profession to assess a patient’s conditions.

Currently, Kaiser allows therapists to spend 15% of their workday doing such tasks. While the company has referred to this as administrative work, therapists have said it relates directly to patient care.

Mental health clinicians said the company is experiencing high turnover among professionals in the behavioral health unit because they do not have enough time to do this work, and that high turnover means they can’t gain enough critical mass to ensure members get timely access to care .

Kaiser officials say turnover among the company’s mental health providers is no higher than that for workers in the overall health care industry.

The company is being investigated by the Department of Managed Health Care amid increased member complaints that it is not providing timely access to behavioral health care.

NUHW represents more than 2,000 mental health clinicians at Kaiser. Union leaders say Kaiser is flagrantly violating a state law that requires health plans to ensure that patients get follow up appointments within 10 business days of their prior appointment if recommended by a therapist.

This story was originally published September 26, 2022 1:24 PM.

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Cathie Anderson covers health care for The Bee. Growing up, her blue-collar parents paid out of pocket for care. She joined The Bee in 2002, with roles including business columnist and features editor. She previously worked at papers including the Dallas Morning News, Detroit News and Austin American-Statesman.

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