Kaiser mental health workers to strike later this month


(Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Graphic by Solano NewsNet)

More than 2,000 mental health care workers employed by Kaiser Permanente will go on strike later this month as the union representing the health care workers continue to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.

The strike, set for August 15, will be indefinite and affect Kaiser hospitals throughout California, including two in Solano County.

A spokesperson for the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) said the strike was intended to "persuade Kaiser Permanente to provide real parity for mental health care." Union officials accused Kaiser Permanente of failing to provide adequate behavioral and emotional health care for its members at a time when its workers are seeing an increase in mental health cases.

"Patients are getting ripped off while Kaiser’s coffers are bulging," Sal Rosselli, the president of the union representing Kaiser Permamente's workers, said in a prepared 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."

A spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente told Solano NewsNet that union workers have used strikes as a negotiating tactic every time its employees are negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.

"It is especially disappointing that NUHW is asking our dedicated and compassionate employees to walk away from their patients when they need us most," Deb Catsavas, the senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser Permanente, told Solano NewsNet by e-mail.

Catsavas said both sides were "close to an agreement," and called the strike "perplexing." The spokesperson also accused the union of reaching out to external health care vendors in an attempt to support their decision to strike.

"We have nothing but appreciation and gratitude for our mental health professionals and the extraordinary care they provide to our members," Catsavas said. "We take seriously any threat by NUHW to disrupt care."

Catsavas affirmed both sides would continue to negotiate a new contract, and that Kaiser Permamente would continue to provide care to its members if a strike goes forward.

"We regularly prepare comprehensive contingency plans and remain prepared to ensure our members will receive the care they need, should NUHW move forward with this strike," Catsavas said.

Union officials said Kaiser Permanente brought in $8.1 billion in profit last year and had $54 million in cash reserves. Despite this, the union said Kaiser Permanente has failed to invest in adding on additional health care workers, which has caused burnout among its current employees.

"In Northern California, Kaiser staffs approximately one full-time equivalent mental health clinician for every 2,600 members," the union said in a statement on Monday, adding that therapists have started leaving the company, which has caused patients to wait a significant amount of time for mental health care treatment.

Earlier this year, state health officials said they would conduct a non-routine audit of Kaiser Permanente's mental health services amid complaints from members and state regulators.

Kaiser Permanente has more than 4 million members in Northern California and another 4 million members in Southern California. It also provides medical services in seven other states and the District of Columbia.

Locally, Kaiser Permanente operates two hospitals: One in Vacaville, and another in Vallejo. Mental health services are offered at both locations, though services could be disrupted for an indefinite amount of time if the union moves forward with its strike on August 15.

The strike is not expected to affect other services offered at Kaiser Permanente's hospitals, including emergency and routine medical care.

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