January 16, 2015
By Marc Bussanich
Over 2,600 mental health workers went on strike in California starting Monday because they say their health care employer, Kaiser Permanente, refuses to increase staff so that current staff can treat persons suffering from mental illness such as severe depression efficiently and timely.
In an interview from Los Angeles, Elizabeth White, a 16-year psychiatric social worker with Kaiser and an executive board member with the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents over 10,000 healthcare workers throughout California, said that the union and Kaiser have both been at the bargaining for the last five years, and although they’ve reached tentative agreements, there are still outstanding issues.
“One of the issues is patient care; we want a professional practices committee to decide staffing levels because Kaiser is growing as a health plan, but we face this dilemma as therapists—we cannot see our patients according to federal and state mental health parity laws,” said White. (Mental health parity laws have set a standard of care for psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety at the same level as a health condition like a heart condition or diabetes.)
She noted that she had to forgo an appointment for four weeks with one client because of a heavy caseload assigned by Kaiser management.
“An immigrant mother came to me, who works two jobs, to say that her child, who was physically healthy, was being bullied in school which caused his self-esteem and school grades to drop. I couldn’t see her or her child weekly to do family work because I had no openings for a month because I’m assigned too many people to see,” White said.
The union wants Kaiser to hire more psychotherapists so that professionals like Ms. White can see clients regularly, and they want their members sitting at the table with management to determine how many to hire, but Kaiser refuses to consider the proposal.
“We want to make Kaiser more transparent. We want people like myself sitting with management at the table and meet with a mediator when we don’t agree, but Kaiser absolutely refuses to consider a professional practices committee and a mediator’s help,” said White.
White hopes that both sides can resolve the impasse soon so that the strike ends, especially Kaiser because the company faces another potential strike next week by 18,000 members of another healthcare union, the California Nurses Association.