By Kevin Schultz and Emily Green
November 15, 2015
Nearly 1,400 Kaiser mental health workers in Northern California in a dispute with the giant health care provider over staffing levels called off a strike at the last minute late Sunday night, as the two sides hammered out a tentative three-year contract.
The announcement came one day before the mental health workers were set to walk off the job. They had threatened to not return to their jobs until more people were assigned to deal with patient loads.
“Kaiser has opened the door to a positive working relationship with us with the goal of providing timely, quality care to our patients by hiring hundreds more mental health professionals,” said Clement Papazian, a psychiatric social worker at Kaiser Oakland and the elected president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers’ Northern California chapter of Kaiser mental health clinicians. “It’s a positive first step.”
The psychologists, social workers and therapists accused Kaiser’s management of understaffing mental health services, leaving patients waiting far too long for appointments. The workers also said Kaiser has retaliated against them for standing up for their patients, terminating employment or withholding compensation.
The contract — negotiated with the help of former California State Sen. President Darrell Steinberg — would allow the employees to “advocate for their patients” without threat of being disciplined or fired, according to the union. It would also set a 1-to-4 ratio of “new-to-return patients” to ensure the patients better access. Kaiser also agreed not to cut pension benefits, according to the union.
“The agreement demonstrates that Kaiser Permanente and our mental health professionals have a shared commitment to our members,” said Don Mordecai, MD, Kaiser Permanente Northern California regional director, Mental Health and Chemical Dependency Services. “This tentative agreement reflects that after prolonged negotiations with NUHW we have been able to work through our disagreements, and ultimately agree on common goals that are in the best interests of our members, employees and our entire organization.”
Kaiser management had said it is has been adding employees to ensure a better level of patient service and claimed the threatened strike was nothing more than a ploy for higher wages and increased benefits. The strike had been announced a week ago after negotiations between Kaiser and the National Union of Healthcare Workers reached an impasse Nov. 4 after 60 bargaining sessions over five years on a new contract.
Kaiser officials also had accused the union of standing in the way of patients getting the treatment they need by walking off their jobs and telling other local mental health givers not to provide support for their patients during the strike.
The union representatives said those accusations are false.
This year, state regulators said Kaiser had made improvements to its mental health services but still had problems with access to appointments and information about the coverage provided. Kaiser had shortened the wait for patients to be seen for the first time but still lagged when it came to follow-up therapy visits, the state Department of Managed Health Care said in its report.