SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Thousands of Kaiser psychiatrists and others who treat mental health patients are hitting the picket line this week at several Kaiser Permanente hospitals in Northern California.
About 100 members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers lined the street outside Kaiser Permanente's San Jose Medical Center. They've been trying to negotiate a contract for the past five years. They work with mental health patients but have been complaining staffing is not keeping up with the growth in patients.
Kaiser Permanente's National Vice President of Issues John Nelson doesn't agree.
"We've hired hundreds of therapists over the last few years. We've increased the number of therapists in California, for example, by 25 percent and in contrast, our membership has grown eight percent during that same time," explained Nelson.
The union, which represents 3,300 employees - mostly in mental health - disputes those numbers.
"Even though they've increased staffing by about 12 percent, during the same period of time - that same three years from 2011 to 2014 - the amount of members in the Kaiser system has increased by more than that much," said Steve Ode, the union shop steward.
The mental health clinicians handle a wide range of patients care, from adult and juvenile psychiatry to chemical dependency to pain management.
The union says it takes three to six weeks after a patient is first diagnosed to get a follow-up appointment.
However, Kaiser Permanente, which was fined $4 million last year by the state agency that oversees managed care over its mental health care, says it can handle all who need help.
The strike is expected to run through Friday, although nurses in another bargaining unit are threatened to go out strike two days next week.
This picket line was set up at Kaiser Permanente's San Jose Medical Center. Two of its mental health facilities, however, are located at satellite buildings and were not picketed.
The last contract talks were held Saturday. No new negotiations are scheduled.