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Mental Health Clinicians Hold One-Day Strike at Kaiser Oakland

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday April 25, 2014 - 10:35:00 AM

More than seventy-five Kaiser Permanente workers marched, picketed, chanted, and sang outside Oakland Medical Center Wednesday to call attention to deficiencies in Kaiser's mental health services. 

Thirty-five Oakland adult services mental health clinicians — therapists, counselors, social workers, and psychologists — were joined by other clinicians, as well as nurses, and patients and their families in a rally to raise awareness about severe hardships faced by Kaiser members throughout the state. The clinicians protested Kaiser's effort to implement policies at Oakland Medical Center that have been used in Redwood City, where six Kaiser mental health patients have committed suicide. 

The Oakland clinicians' fellow mental health professionals and NUHW members at Kaiser facilities throughout California wore stickers to work Wednesday declaring their support for the strike. 

The group gathered at 8 a.m. and picketed outside the hospital while Kaiser officials looked on nervously. Kaiser had attempted to curtail the picket by erecting barricades along the sidewalks and sealing off parking spaces. 

At 10 a.m. NUHW President Sal Rosselli addressed the crowd, laying out the issues faced by Kaiser patients and caregivers for the better part of five years. He was followed by Oakland psychologist Mindy Ginne, mental health worker Janine Thomas, and Zenei Cortez, co-president of the California Nurses Association and a nurse at Kaiser South San Francisco. Oakland mayoral candidate and NUHW lawyer Dan Siegel also addressed the group, voicing his support for the clinicians, NUHW, and the Kaiser patients who are not getting the care they need, deserve, and pay for. 

Systemwide, Kaiser Permanente's mental health departments are understaffed, with not enough therapists, psychiatrists, and counselors to care for the number of patients seeking care. Kaiser members in dire need of psychiatric help are often required to wait months for appointments, in violation of state law. And too often when patients do get an appointment, Kaiser cuts costs by funneling them into group therapy rather than individualized care. Oakland clinicians are concerned that these problems will only increase as hundreds of thousands of Californians become Kaiser members under the Affordable Care Act. 

Several families have joined a class action lawsuit against Kaiser due to its inadequate mental health services. The lead plaintiff, Susan Futterman Paroutaud, is suing Kaiser over the 2012 death of her husband. Fred Paroutaud was a gifted composer and pianist diagnosed as bipolar who hanged himself in his home after repeated attempts to secure an appointment with Kaiser's mental health department. 

"We are failing our patients, and for some the failures can prove fatal," said Clement Papazian, LCSW. "Kaiser Permanente's policies are forcing mental health clinicians throughout the state to provide substandard care." 

Kaiser caregivers first sounded the alarm about these issues in 2011. Clinicians throughout the state worked through their union, NUHW, to document Kaiser's policies and the harmful effects on patients. The result was a comprehensive report, "Care Delayed, Care Denied," that brought these issues to the attention of California's Department of Managed Health Care. The DMHC confirmed the clinicians' findings and levied a $4 million fine — the second largest in its history — against Kaiser for illegally delaying patients’ access to mental health services and for "systemic" violations of California law, including the California Mental Health Parity Act. 

Unfortunately, Kaiser has done little to correct these problems, and even tried to bar the public from an upcoming hearing on the matter. On April 11, Judge Ruth Astle of the Office of Administrative Hearings in Oakland denied Kaiser's motion to close the hearing and seal the hearing documents. 

"Kaiser needs to get its house in order now," said Andris Skuja. "Patients' lives are at stake. If Kaiser can't care for the patients we have now, how are we going to care for the hundreds of thousands of new members coming in under the Affordable Care Act?" 

Kaiser Permanente's failure to address these problems led clinicians to take matters into their own hands by taking their case to the public. A clinician at Kaiser's Santa Rosa facility has resigned in protest and is blogging about the obstacles faced by him and his fellow caregivers in tending to their patients' needs (see