Mental health workers are primed to picket outside Kaiser Permanente medical centers across California, including OC, starting Monday. The week-long strike calls out the healthcare nonprofit for raking billions in profits without staffing enough therapists for patients in need.
Represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), psychologists, social workers and therapists want more workers so people don't have to be backlogged for weeks in order just to get help.
"It's difficult to book return appointments," says marriage and family therapist Jonathan Trost. He's been with Kaiser since 1997 out of the SanTana office near Tustin and serves as union steward. "We end up feeling very stretched. It may be the least favorite moment of an appointment when we're saying 'Well, let's see when we can see you back again.'"
Trost himself just booked a followup appointment with a patient a month out. For his colleagues, they often pencil return sessions for as late as three, five or six weeks. The lack of consistency can prove to be critical for a patient's recovery time from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or any other type of mental health condition.
Problems with heavy caseloads and lack of timely access to mental health care is nothing new for Kaiser. The nonprofit got dinged with a $4 million fine in 2013 by California regulators for their notorious wait lists. Kaiser finally agreed to pay last September right before a hearing was scheduled that would have allowed therapists to air their grievances.
Not enough has changed for mental health workers since then. The strike slated to begin Monday is organized to take place in 35 cities with 65 pickets throughout the week. Kaiser's Anaheim Medical Center will be the first spot locally targeted, with facilities in Santa Ana and Irvine scheduled to follow through Friday.
"There's an awful lot of frustration," Trost says of his colleagues' morale. Despite annual profits, the short staffing hasn't improved at Kaiser's psychiatry departments, despite the fact that there is to be parity by law between mental and physical healthcare accessibility. "Family medicine, at least in Orange County, has probably increased more than twenty-five percent," he adds. "Our staff in psychiatry hasn't grown commensurate to that."
Trost says it would be difficult for the SanTana office he works at to add staff even if they wanted to as he says there isn't another available office in the building. The squeeze put on Kaiser's skeleton crews has them ready to stage what union organizers state will be the largest mental health worker strike in the nation.
"When I was going around to see who was actually going to sign a strike petition, virtually every person did," Trost says. Clinicians from other OC Kaiser medical centers will join the line every day next week.
The NUHW proposes site-based clinician-management committees to determine and fulfill staffing needs with a third party mediator to break any impasse. If Kaiser agrees to that, the union says, a strike will be averted. If not, the pickets are going into full-effect.
"In the end, I think that Kaiser can be a really marvelous organization," Trost says. " It can manage to avoid a lot American health care problems."
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2