On Monday, more than 2,000 mental health care workers at Kaiser Permanente in Northern California began an open-ended strike to demand the health care giant increase staffing and address dangerously long waits for therapy appointments.
“They’re turning us into a patient assembly line,” said Ilana Marcucci-Morris, an Oakland-based therapist for Kaiser, who called the work stoppage a “last resort” after years of failed negotiations.
As demand for mental health care soars, Kaiser’s mental health workers, including psychologists, social workers, therapists and addiction counselors, say they’ve faced increasingly unmanageable workloads, even as patients are forced to wait two to three months for appointments.
“It’s scary and demoralizing for me as a therapist to tell people over and over again — ‘You are suffering. You really need this medically necessary care,’” said Marcucci-Morris, who has worked at Kaiser since 2019. “But, Kaiser can’t give it to you until the first week of December.’”
According to the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents the clinicians, the poor conditions have led to a near doubling of Kaiser workers leaving the company in the past year, 85 percent of whom attributed their departure to unsustainable workloads, according to a union survey. Amongst departing workers, 76 percent said they were unable to “treat patients in line with standards of care and medical necessity.”
“Patients are getting ripped off while Kaiser’s coffers are bulging,” Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, 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 union has been negotiating a new contract with Kaiser that would include provisions to reduce patient wait times and ease the burdens on current staff by recruiting and hiring more mental health care practitioners. Yet, the company’s attempts to recruit new workers have thus far failed to compensate for widespread resignations and staffing shortages.
Striking employees at Kaiser have started a strike fund to help offset the impact of lost wages for vulnerable workers as they continue to strike indefinitely for improved conditions. The work stoppage follows several earlier short-term strikes over the past decade that failed to spur adequate action.
According to workers like Marcucci-Morris, Kaiser’s treatment of mental health professionals is also symptomatic of a broader undervaluation of mental health services as a form of critical, life-saving care.
“The big goal is mental health care parity,” Marcucci-Morris said from the picket line on Wednesday, noting that other clinicians are typically afforded more reasonable caseloads. “We want the same respect, acknowledgement and resources as seen in primary care and hospitals.”
Across the country, other health care workers have also been calling attention to widespread staffing shortages, poor worker retention and an industry-wide ethos that prioritizes profits over patients.
On Tuesday, after five months of failed negotiations, 15,000 nurses with the Minnesota Nurses Association voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. If negotiation leaders call for a strike, it would amount to one of the largest nurse strikes in U.S. history, as part of a call for better staffing and patient care.
“Corporate healthcare policies in our hospitals have left nurses understaffed and overworked, while patients are overcharged, local hospitals and services are closed, and executives take home million-dollar paychecks,” Chris Rubesch, first vice president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said in a statement.
“Nurses have one priority in our hospitals, to take care of our patients, and we are determined to fight for fair contracts so nurses can stay at the bedside to provide the quality care our patients deserve.”
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