Mental health professionals with Kaiser Permanente have called off a statewide strike that was supposed to begin this week urging the health care provider to address concerns over access of care.
Bargaining teams representing 4,000 employees voted unanimously on Sunday to call off an open-ended strike that had been set for Tuesday in the hopes that a new contract could be approved soon.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers said the decision was made after Senate Pro Tempore Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon challenged both sides on Friday to reach a settlement without a strike.
"The ball is in Kaiser's court," said NUHW President Sal Rosselli. "We remain ready to negotiate a contract that fully addresses the pressing problems faced by Kaiser Permanente clinicians and patients, but Kaiser is refusing to meet with us."
Kaiser Permanente provided a statement in response to the union's decision.
"We are pleased that the NUHW strike has been called off. It was the responsible thing to do," the health care provider said. "We credit this decision to our therapists, who have been providing leadership at the table and representing the voice of our employees in all these discussions."
Rosselli said Kaiser Permanente needs to hire more clinicians to address heavy workloads and patients’ long wait times for follow-up appointments, and the hope was that the strike would help urge the health care provider to take action.
“People don’t want to go on strike, but the access to care has deteriorated,” he said. “It’s a critical, horrendous situation. It’s a crisis of care.”
Rosselli said it can take more than two months for patients to get follow-up appointments because of a rise in demand in recent years.
The state Department of Managed Health Care requires that patients be allowed to get an initial appointment with mental health care providers within 10 business days. But there is no such requirement for follow-up appointments.
In addition to addressing the staff issue, the union is also seeking the same 3 percent pay increase and benefits package workers in other departments have gotten within the past year.
Kaiser Permanente has accused the union of using patients as bargaining chips in the contract negotiations.
“It is disappointing and disheartening that, once again, the leadership of the (NUHW) is calling on our mental health therapists to walk away from their patients,” the company said in a statement prior to Sunday's announcement. “We trust that when the time comes, our dedicated colleagues will be there for their patients.”
Employees in Bakersfield were set to take part in next week's strike. According to the union, there are 40 members in Bakersfield, 30 of whom are clinicians and the other 10 are workers such as dietitians and audiologists.
The clinicians see more than 100,000 patients from across Kern County.
Susan Whitney, a marriage and licensed therapist for Kaiser Permanente in Bakersfield and a member of the statewide bargaining team, said while the health care provider has taken steps to make it easier for people to get initial appointments, that hasn’t been the case with follow-up appointments, which she said are critical in mental health care because therapists deal with people at risk of hurting themselves.
Mental health workers have staged several walkouts in the past to urge Kaiser to fix the issue, including a five-day strike in December. Whitney said the efforts have not led to any significant changes.
“Kaiser’s not willing to take specific steps to resolve that problem,” she said. “They’re doing well at getting an initial appointment within 10 days, but there’s no immediate availability to come back.”
Kaiser Permanente said it has increased the number of therapists on staff by 30 percent since 2015 despite a nationwide shortage of mental health care professionals. The provider said it is committed to reaching a resolution with the union.
“We remain committed to responsibly reaching a new contract agreement, which is what our therapists and patients deserve,” the health care provider said.