Care delayed, care denied. Patients over profits. Failure to thrive. Mental health, not corporate wealth.

The picket signs carried by social workers, nurses and other health care workers say it all. As I walked the picket line, I was saddened, then angered, by Kaiser Permanente’s public response to our actions this week.

I’ve been a therapist with Kaiser Bakersfield for over 15 years, and I’ve seen firsthand Kaiser Permanente’s long and troubled history with mental health services. The health care workers on strike against Kaiser are committed to one thing above all: demanding that Kaiser take care of members, in line with community standards of care, state regulations and federal mental health parity law.

Fact: The 2008 Federal parity law requires insurers to cover mental health conditions no more restrictively than illnesses of the body, such as diabetes or cancer.

Fact: State regulations mandate that Kaiser provide access to specialists (including therapists and social workers) within two weeks or less, based on need and severity of the problem.

Fact: For over 15 years now, our schedules have been booked out four to six weeks for "returns" — appointments for our follow-up patients.

Fact: Kaiser was already fined $4 million by the Department of Managed Health Care and is still under corrective action plans because members cannot access needed mental health care. After that fine, and under increased scrutiny, Kaiser responded by focusing only on getting members in the door for a first session with us, and then left it to us to explain to members that they cannot be seen again for four to six weeks.

Imagine that you or your loved one has suffered a loss, is coping with a serious illness or is dealing with major depression, severe anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder or the like. For many, desperation drives them to finally make that phone call and come in. Waiting four to six weeks to be seen again is not just "out of compliance with state regulations;" it feels like an eternity.

Kaiser has continued to market to the public, to advertise total health and "thriving" and to take on new members, but has not hired the mental health staff to keep up with the demand for needed care. Kaiser's public responses to our demands are full of half-truths, misleading statements and some outright lies. It is a lie that our strike is primarily about a pay raise. Shame on you, Kaiser.

Tell the truth. Follow the law. Take care of the members you already have.

Susan Whitney is a lifelong Bakersfield resident, who has worked in mental health and with children and their families, for over 25 years.

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