Kaiser Permanente mental health workers on strike across California, demanding better patient care

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Thousands of Kaiser mental health employees began a five day strike on Monday.

"When therapists are under attack, what do we do? Stand up! Fight back!" was one of the chants heard at the Kaiser hospital on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco.

Michael Torres, a clinical psychologist at Kaiser's San Leandro facility said, "Teenagers who are struggling with depression, trauma, serious anxiety should not have to wait three to five weeks in between appointments to get care."

Organizers says this strike comes after a year-and-a-half of failed negotiations. Striking employees said there has been agreement on issues related to salary and employees benefits. The major issues now are focused on workload and patient care.

The mental health care workers are demanding that Kaiser hire more staff to ease their current workload. Torres says such changes would allow for the quality healthcare that Kaiser promises.

"There is no nationally recognized standard of practice that suggests treatment should be every three to five weeks," Torres says. "It simply doesn't exist, but this is the system we have at Kaiser and it's unethical."

Kirsten Quinn Siegel is a mental health therapist at Kaiser Richmond. She estimates that there is one clinician for every 3,000 Kaiser members. She acknowledges that Kaiser has agreed to improve the ratio of new patients to return patients that the staff must treat.

However, Siegel goes on to say, "They have put in so many loopholes in our contract negotiations that they wouldn't even fulfill that until three or four years from now."

State Senator Scott Weiner was among those who spoke in support of the strike at a rally in San Francisco.

"When someone has mental health needs, they (should) get help immediately. Not in a month, not two months," Weiner said.

Senator Weiner says he has been in discussion with Kaiser officials.

"Kaiser says they want to do better, and I take them at their word. But they need to put their money where their mouth is and actually do better, because there is a lot of under staffing in terms of mental health care services," Weiner said. "Sometimes you hit an impasse and sometimes it takes a strike to break that impasse."

But Kaiser officials dismiss the claims being made.

"Our commitment to mental health cannot be questioned," says Ron Groepper, Senior Vice President and area manager for the greater San Francisco area. He calls the strike "irresponsible."

RELATED: Kaiser Permanente announces tentative agreement with unions to avoid nationwide strike

Groepper admits that he hasn't been directly involved in the negotiations, but he says this problem is part of a national mental health crisis. He says the outstanding issues would be best solved at the bargaining table and highlights Kaiser's recent investments.

"I know that we have invested $700 million in new facilities. I know that we have invested $40 million in therapist education," says Groepper.

However, Torres says, some of Kaiser's claims may be misleading. "That doesn't take into account the growth in membership and those clinicians who have left Kaiser," explains Torres.

Unless the two sides agree to meet, the strike will go through Friday, with striking employees picketing in different cities each day.

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