Thousands of mental health therapists at the country’s largest non-profit HMO are poised to strike this week, holding daily picket lines and rallies outside Kaiser Facilities throughout California.
The unionized psychologists, therapists, chemical dependency counselors and social workers are demanding that Kaiser Permanente provide “desperately needed” services to its patients, claiming that some wait months for needed therapy sessions.
The open-ended strike is set to begin Monday, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents 16,000 workers in California and Hawaii, said. Kaiser staffs about one full-time mental health clinician for every 2,600 members, leading to therapists leaving Kaiser at a record rate, the union said.
“Patients are getting ripped off while Kaiser’s coffers are bulging,” union president Sal Rosselli said in a statement. “We don’t take striking lightly but it’s time to take a stand and make Kaiser spend some of its billions on mental health care.”
The strike comes as the country experiences a surge in mental health issues. The World Health Organization said the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic triggered a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide. And a pediatrics group last year declared that mental health challenges among children during the Covid-19 pandemic had become a “national emergency.”
The union said that patients who need therapy every week or every two weeks are waiting months to start therapy regimens, and then another four to eight weeks between appointments.
In a statement, Kaiser Permanente said the two key issues the parties are bargaining over are wage increases and the union’s demands to increase the time therapists are able to spend on tasks other than seeing patients. Kaiser said they have proposed an increase in time allocated for administrative work, but the union is demanding more.
In a release, the striking clinicians said Kaiser, which reported an $8.1 billion net profit last year, “refuses to adequately invest in additional staff; take steps to reduce the burnout of current employees; and do what is necessary to bring its mental health clinics into parity with other health services the HMO provides.”
Kaiser said the union is “exploiting current challenges as a bargaining tactic.”
“Despite the union’s harmful tactics, we remain committed to bargaining in good faith to reach a fair and equitable agreement that is good for our therapists and our patients,” Deb Catsavas, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser Permanente Northern California, said in a statement.
The clinicians voted in June to go on strike after a year of failed contract negotiations.
Last November, unions and Kaiser management reached an agreement to avoid a strike at 14 West Coast hospitals and hundreds of clinics and medical offices. The strike would have included 32,000 union nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists and other health care professionals.
CNN Business’ Chris Isidore contributed to this report.