Concerns grow for patients amid Bay Area Kaiser strike

Like Kaiser Permanente therapists up north California enter the second month of a course Strikea growing number of patients say they have been unable to get appointments during the work stoppage, despite the HMO’s legal obligation to provide timely access to mental health care.

The California Department of Managed Health Care, which started an investigation at Kaiser behavioral health services last month, said his help center received 100 complaints about patients struggling to access care through Kaiser between Monday, Aug. 15, and Saturday, Sept. 3, the data latest available.

Lisa Rubio, who lives in San Rafael and has attended weekly sessions with her Kaiser therapist for the past eight years, said her appointments abruptly ended in mid-August. Rubio described her therapist as her main form of emotional support through a liver cancer diagnosis last year. Kaiser has offered her little help since she began the strike, even as she awaits the results of an MRI and other tests related to abnormal growths on her liver. If the HMO offered her an appointment with a new therapist, which they haven’t, she’s not sure if she’d take it.

“It has derailed my life,” he told SFGATE. “I don’t see how someone who doesn’t know me can help me. … Reviewing it would be more difficult than doing it alone.”

Still, it doesn’t bother him that his doctor goes on strike to fight for better working conditions.

“I realized that I was overloaded with work. I am a caregiver and I am 63 years old. I know when something is wrong,” she said. “I kept asking him why he didn’t look good. One day during the session, she finally told me: ‘I’m not sick, I work at night’”.

Alexis Petrakis, a Kaiser child psychologist who works with patients in Petaluma and San Rafael, said she “didn’t expect to be on strike for this long” but would not return to work until Kaiser improved its standards of patient care, insufficient staffing levels staffing and unsustainable working conditions, which have led to a retention crisis. According to regional data provided by the National Union of Health Care Workers last month, 377 doctors in Northern California left their jobs at Kaiser between June 2021 and May 2022.

“We want to go back to work. My colleagues and I are ready. But we are certainly not ready to go back to the status quo,” Petrakis told SFGATE by phone Tuesday afternoon as he drove home from the picket line in San Rafael. “People need more frequent care and support, and as it stands, our system cannot accommodate that in any way.”

Petrakis is optimistic about the ongoing negotiation, which was reopened today after a month without official meetings between Kaiser and union representatives.

“I hope we can really come to a place of mutual agreement and understanding, and come to a fair contract that gives patients the care they need and deserve,” Petrakis said. “We want a resolution.”

Kaiser Permanente workers walk out at the Oakland Medical Center to protest the HMO’s “unethical” working conditions on August 16, 2022.

Ariana Bindman/SFGATE

Dave, who lives in Vacaville and asked to use only his first name to discuss private medical matters, said his daughter, who is in her 20s, had been seeing a therapist for depression and anxiety. She was also in the midst of an intensive 12-week trauma-related group therapy program when the strike began. Both his one-on-one dates and his group sessions were canceled without being rescheduled; he now he hasn’t seen a therapist in four weeks.

“Mental health issues don’t go away, they get worse,” he told SFGATE by phone on Monday. “She has made it very clear that she has had a very hard time hanging on, trying to survive. … We feel like there are no options.”

Even before the strike, Dave said his daughter was only able to see her therapist once every three to four weeks. Because her group therapy sessions were postponed in the middle, he worries that she will have to start the trauma program all over again.

“It has to get tough before it gets better, and she was in the tough part [of the program]Dave said. “He couldn’t even get to the other side where he could learn to deal and handle problems. [Kaiser] he really dropped the ball at the worst time.”

Kaiser Permanente therapists on the picket line.

Kaiser Permanente therapists on the picket line.

matt artz

In a statement, Kaiser told SFGATE that it was using all available resources to ensure its members’ mental health needs were met during the indefinite strike and that it had not canceled any appointments without expanding alternative care options. When asked how many appointments had been cancelled, how many doctors were on strike and how many outside therapists were coming on board, Kaiser declined to comment.

“About 50% of our dedicated physicians serve members rather than strike,” a Kaiser spokesperson said by email. “In addition, our Kaiser Permanente psychiatrists, clinical administrators and other licensed physicians have stepped in to meet with people who need care. We have brought in dozens of qualified doctors on a temporary basis to help care for patients during the strike.”

The National Union of Health Workers, which represents striking therapists and filed an official complain with the Department of Managed Health Care before the strike, he believes Kaiser is exaggerating the number of therapists crossing the picket line and has been illegally canceling and postponing appointments. Last month, Kaiser therapist Sarah Soroken told SFGATE that Kaiser’s actions violate state laws such as Senate Bill 221, which took effect in July and requires insurance companies like Kaiser to provide therapy patients with a follow-up appointment within 10 days of your request. Senate Bill 855, which took effect in January 2021, also requires health insurance companies to provide comprehensive coverage for all mental health conditions.

“This strike is about patient care,” union president Sal Rosselli told SFGATE in a statement. “Kaiser Permanente makes patients wait months for therapy sessions in violation of state law, and Kaiser executives lie about the care available to patients when their only focus is the bottom line. Kaiser mental health doctors have sacrificed a month’s salary to fight for their patients, but Kaiser executives don’t care about the patients whose premiums fund their seven-figure salaries.”

Kaiser Permanente workers strike at Oakland Medical Center to protest HMOs

Kaiser Permanente workers walk out at the Oakland Medical Center to protest the HMO’s “unethical” working conditions on August 16, 2022.

Ariana Bindman/SFGATE

Nam Nguyen, a Kaiser employee who lives in Benicia, had been seeing a therapist for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. His regularly scheduled appointments and his support group stopped at the start of the strike, he told SFGATE. He was only able to get an appointment with a therapist after contacting an attorney from the Department of Managed Health Care.

Nguyen said that he had called Kaiser on the first day of the strike to request some kind of interim therapy; She was referred to an outpatient partial hospitalization program, but they never called. When she contacted Kaiser again to ask what was going on and to see if she could request an individual therapy appointment or access to a support group, she was sent to the emergency department. Nearly two weeks later, an attorney from the Department of Managed Health Care stepped in and was able to place her in an intensive outpatient program run by an outside provider.

“I was struggling with suicidal ideation, because I hadn’t talked to anyone,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen said she knew what steps to take to get an appointment in part because she is a Kaiser employee. She worries about how people without that experience are handling the continual interruptions.

“It was hard enough for me to go through the system. I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone else,” she said. “They put in a decent patchwork program to stabilize me, but it’s not a long-term solution. I’m waiting for my therapist to come back.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on September 15 at 9:19am to correct the timeline of Nam Nguyen’s experience at Kaiser.

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