Kaiser mental health workers say patient care, not money, at root of strike


Mental health workers picket in front of the Kaiser Permanente medical campus in Vacaville on Thursday, August 25, 2022. (Photo by Matthew Keys for Solano NewsNet)

Mental health workers employed by Kaiser Permanente have been on strike for more than a week, picketing in front of the health care provider's two Solano County campuses as part of a broader strike that could continue for several more weeks.

On Thursday, more than a dozen therapists, mental health clinicians and their supporters were in front of the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Vacaville. The group is normally larger, but several Solano County-area mental health workers were in Sacramento that day to meet with state lawmakers at the Capitol there.

The workers say they have been seeing patients at Kaiser Permanente's hospitals and clinics throughout the state without a new union contract since last September. Last month, members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) authorized an open-ended strike after both sides failed to reach an agreement for a new contract.

"Patients are getting ripped off while Kaiser’s coffers are bulging," Sal Rosselli, the president of NUHW, said in the statement. "We don’t take striking lightly, but it’s time to take a stand and make Kaiser spend some of its billions on mental health care."

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April Brownell, a Vacaville-based child therapist who serves as the local spokesperson for NUHW, said the strike was more about patient care than money.

"We have already agreed to the economic plan," Brownell said. "We are not out here for money."

Instead, the strike is mainly focused on convincing Kaiser Permanente to offer more time within a clinician's schedule for administrative tasks. Like other hospital groups, Kaiser Permanente requires therapists and other workers to conduct follow-ups and respond to messages left by patients within a certain amount of time — typically a few days.

But for every one therapist working at Kaiser Permanente, there are 2,000 members who need service, Brownell said, and there's not enough time in the day to meet with patients and complete administrative tasks that Kaiser Permanente requires. Some mental health workers stay beyond their scheduled hours simply to return phone calls and e-mails from patients.

The strenuous workload has caused burnout among some mental health workers: Brownell said around 400 therapists left Kaiser Permanente last year, and the organization has only hired around 200 to replace them. Unlike physicians, whose patient rosters are capped at a certain number of members, mental health workers are assigned an unlimited number of patients. On average, five new patients are added to a therapist's roster each week, Brownell said.

"They can no longer keep up with the workload, the demand, the lack of time that we have in our schedules each day," Brownell said. "So we are really just trying to get a contract that will allow us to see our patients more regularly, not wait six to eight weeks, as well as to keep workers who are at Kaiser within Kaiser and not leaving."

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Solano NewsNet reached out to Kaiser Permanente on Thursday with specific questions about the complaints raised by NUHW members. A spokesperson for the medical group referred us to a blog post on the Kaiser Permanente News & Perspectives website published last Friday.

"We appreciate the hundreds of Kaiser Permanente mental health professionals who choose to come to work for their patients," a Kaiser Permanente spokesperson wrote on the blog. "More than 30 percent of our dedicated clinicians have been caring for members throughout this strike, with more returning each day. [Additionally], our Kaiser Permanente psychiatrists, clinical managers, and other licensed clinicians have stepped in to meet with people needing care."

Kaiser Permanente said it has reached out to members whose appointments have been affected by the strike, and will continue to do so. But Brownell painted a very different picture of what's going on inside Kaiser Permanente's local hospitals: She said front desk workers have been proactively cancelling appointments for new and returning Kaiser Permanente patients because of the strike.

"They're really just operating on a crisis-basis," Brownell said. "If somebody is having a crisis, they tell them to go to the emergency room."

Brownell said their strike will continue until the group reaches a new agreement with Kaiser Permanente concerning administrative workloads and patient care. During the strike, union-covered mental health workers are not being paid — many are salaried — and while NUHW provides funds to help purchase signs and other materials needed for their picket, that money doesn't go to cover the salary of striking mental health care workers.

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Grassroots funds have been set up to help cover expenses for striking mental health workers who need assistance paying their bills. A GoFundMe has been established to help workers in Vacaville; it had over $1,000 in financial contributions as of Thursday afternoon. A similar fundraiser established for mental health workers in Fairfield and Vallejo had over $6,000 in contributions as of Thursday. The workers have also taken their cause to social media, where Instagram, Twitter and even TikTok accounts have been set up to spread the word.

NUHW has announced strike dates through Friday, September 2, with mental health workers alternating their picket line between Kaiser Permanente's Vacaville and Vallejo hospitals. Mental health workers at Kaiser Permanente's hospitals in Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Oakland and other locations are also rallying throughout the week.

"We're going to be out here as long as it takes," Brownell promised.

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