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California Kaiser Mental Health Workers Launch Strike; Problems 'Keep Getting Worse'

More than 4,000 Kaiser Permanente mental health professionals in California launched a five-day strike on Monday at Kaiser facilities across the state.

Psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses, addiction specialists and others represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers say that Kaiser mental health clinics are severely understaffed, forcing some to work after hours to serve more patients. Meanwhile, they say, patients are forced to wait as long as two months for follow-up appointments because of inadequate staffing.

"We're striking because the problems that plague Kaiser's mental health system keep getting worse," said Kenneth Rogers, a Kaiser psychologist, in a statement.

"We don't have enough time to provide proper patient care which includes the preparation and follow up work that goes into every appointment. And patients are being forced to endure even longer wait times for appointments, while Kaiser sits on billions of dollars refusing to fix the problem," Rogers added.

Standing outside the San Leandro child outpatient clinic, clinical psychologist Michael Torres explained that he had joined the picket line to improve services for teenagers struggling with depression, anxiety or serious emotional trauma.

In an online video, Torres said, "I'm thinking of a teenager in my practice, who was tragically gang-raped. And that person had to wait three to five weeks in between sessions to see me for this trauma."

He said the long delays prolong symptoms and exacerbate a patient's condition. "There is no nationally recognized standard practice that suggests three to five weeks in between sessions is OK."

Kaiser released a statement critical of employees for walking off the job while reassuring patients that all hospitals and medical offices will remain open throughout the strike.

"We apologize for any inconvenience caused by this unnecessary strike. We believe that NUHW's repeated call for short strikes is disruptive to patient access, operational care and service and is frankly irresponsible," Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president and interim chief human resources officer wrote in an emailed statement.

Peasnall added that Kaiser has been working with an external, neutral mediator to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the health care workers' union. According to Peasnall, the mediator recently delivered a proposed compromise to both sides. While she said it was being seriously considered by Kaiser, "the union has rejected it and announced plans to strike instead of working through the mediated process."

Monday's start of the strike marks a little over a year since the last time Kaiser mental health employees took to the streets. That strike also lasted five days. Union officials say clinicians have been working without a contract for more than a year.

As member station KPBS reported, last year Kaiser officials said therapist staffing was up by 30% from 2015. "That's more than 500 new therapists in California — even though there's a national shortage," the company said.

Projections from the American Psychological Association show that the existing psychologist supply is insufficient to meet needs for mental health services in the United States. The organization estimates that there are about 98,000 licensed psychologists.

In 2015, Kaiser agreed to pay a $4 million fine levied by state regulators because of inadequate access to its mental health services, KPBS reported.

This year's strike was meant to begin in November, but it was postponed after the sudden death of Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson.

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.