By Peter Maiden
Kaiser Permanente, the healthcare giant, was the location for a picket line in Fresno Dec. 10–14 by the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). Mental health workers in the NUHW, 4,000 statewide, struck to pressure Kaiser to improve staffing and scheduling to meet the needs of patients.
Kaiser was fined $4 million by the State of California five years ago, and another million-dollar fine is threatened, because it does not give parity to mental healthcare. Parity means a mental health patient must be given the same standard of care as a patient with a broken bone or diabetes. There is only one full-time mental health clinician for every 3,000 Kaiser members, and wait times for mental health care is a critical issue.
Kaiser brought in a $3.8 billion profit last year and holds cash reserves of $28 billion.
The strikers, who include therapists, psychologists, social workers and psychiatric nurses, took the week without pay or strike pay. Three of them, who identified themselves as Terry, Greg and Christine, spoke while on the picket line at the Fresno Medical Center on Dec. 10.
Terry said, “The standard of care is [meeting patients] weekly or every other week, so when you are [only able to schedule] a return appointment every four to six weeks, typically out in the community that would be just a ‘Hey, you’re doing great, let’s check back in in four to six weeks…’ But when people are really in desperate need, when they’re in a crisis, and you’re telling them ‘Hey, I don’t have an appointment for you for another four to six weeks,’ that’s not meeting the standard of care.”
Greg added, “This has been going on throughout the time that I’ve worked at Kaiser, at least 10 years.”
All three agreed that therapy sessions needed to be once a week or once every two weeks for the patient and therapist to feel a continuity in the care. Otherwise, they spend too much time getting acquainted and re-acquainted and don’t get to dealing with issues.
A Kaiser Permanente spokesperson denied a request for an interview and instead provided a written statement that said strikers are after economic gains first and foremost.
Christine felt differently: “There are some economic issues that we’re fighting for, but none of them are things that Kaiser hasn’t already given to other unions. They’re simple things like cost of living increases; we’re not looking for huge increases in salaries or anything like that. I’m not here for an increased wage.
“I’m here to provide better care for the people that I serve…At least we’re having a dialogue about what can make things different.
“I realize that would take a lot of creativity. We believe that Kaiser leadership is capable of creativity; it’s an amazing organization. We wouldn’t work for it if we didn’t have faith in [it]. We’re asking them to join us in a creative solution to this problem that’s affecting people all up and down the region.”
Peter Maiden is a staff photographer for the Community Alliance newspaper. He studied media at UC Berkeley. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.