UPDATE, MAY 19, 6:35 A.M.: Kaiser Permanente mental health workers ended their statewide leafleting on Friday. The health insurance nonprofit weighed in with the Weekly about the National Union Healthcare Workers (NUHW) organized action saying in a statement that they had deep concerns about picketing "a site where patients receive care on what can be sensitive matters, and who trust they are doing so in a safe and confidential environment."
As for stalled contract negotiations and alleged retaliatory whistleblower firing? "It is unfortunate that the union is making a new round of false claims against Kaiser Permanente as part of its bargaining strategy, this time wrongly leveling accusations of retaliation," the Kaiser statement reads.
"We have engaged in good faith bargaining with the health care professionals and therapists and have in no way sought to retaliate against them."
ORIGINAL POST, MAY 15, 7:05 A.M.:Therapists stood outside a Kaiser Permanente in Anaheim yesterday and, for once, wanted to tell folks about their problems. They handed out leaflets claiming the health insurance giant is "retaliating against whistleblowers." The latest salvo between clinicians organized by National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and Kaiser management comes at a time when both sides haven't yet reached a contract agreement.
Pickets and leaflets all around California called for the reinstatement of psychologist Dr. Alex Wang, a Bay Area Kaiser clinician who got fired in April. The union claims it came in retaliation for his reporting to state regulators that the HMO failed to provided timely appointment services to mental health patients.
"We shouldn't be understaffed. We shouldn't be able to not provide certain services according to legal and ethical treatment guidelines," Marriage & Family therapist Dan Arvesen told Weekly as he leafleted outside the Kaiser Permanente on Euclid Avenue and Romneya Drive. "Dr. Wang is just an excellent individual example of the retaliatory efforts that Kaiser is engaging in."
Working conditions for mental health clinicians at Kaiser hasn't improved to their liking since the Weekly left the story last. Back in January psychologists, social workers and therapists staged a 5-day strike. The statewide action, including picket lines in OC, was the largest-ever mental health worker strike in the nation.
The languishing contract fight, now in its third year, has taken its toll among fellow clinicians. "The morale has been pretty poor," Arvesen reports. "It's been disillusioning. Kaiser used to be the employer of choice," adds Marriage & Family therapist Vicki Hoskins.
The firing of Wang only adds fuel to the fire. Union stewards sent an angry letter last week to new Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson and friends. They claim that it all started back in 2013 when the healthcare provider deemed Dr. Wang's chart statement that noted a patient need to be seen sooner than three weeks for an initial appointment as "political speech" in a pretext to sack him. A whistleblower complaint has been filed with California Attorney General Kamala Harris' office.
The NUHW calls failed contract negotiations "collective retaliation" against clinicians, one that ultimately impacts vulnerable patients. "The offers that they had for reward were vague and they weren't agreeing to some of the things that are really important to us, like having a committee where management and staff work together to decide what's best for mental health patients," Hoskins says.
"We're still hoping that Kaiser will bring something tangible and equitable to the table."
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2