It’s Not About the Pay, But the Patients, Claim Kaiser Permanente Mental Health Therapists

Published : Wednesday, May 1, 2019 | 4:53 AM

Kaiser Permanente mental health therapists staged a one-day walkout outside their offices at 3280 E Foothill Blvd, Pasadena on April 25, 2019.

With a one-day walkout last week at a Pasadena Kaiser Permanente Medical Clinic in the rear-view mirror, the union representing striking mental health therapists and their employer continued to debate who cares more about the patients.

“We value our therapist colleagues and are sorry their union’s leadership is putting them in this difficult position,” said Kaiser Permanente in a prepared statement, urging the therapists to resolve their issues at the bargaining table.

The company noted that it has been negotiating with the therapists bargaining agent, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), since the summer of 2018, with two more bargaining sessions slated for May.

The healthcare provider asserted that “until recently” the union’s proposals at the bargaining table were about money rather than concern for patients.

Not so, said striker Tanya Taluz. The walkout was all, and only, about staffing levels. Patients, she explained, are having to wait as much as three months for return appointments.

“This really is about fighting for our patients, because we sit down every day with people who are really struggling,” said Taluz, who is a licensed family and marriage therapist.

“We’ve been really pushing for more staffing and asking for more providers to be hired because our patients are having to wait three months to see us for a return appointment,” she explained.

Although the union has been hammering away at the issue for a few years, Taluz said, the 18 months have seen it turn up the heat as the problem has grown worse.

“I had a mom come in who had lost a little one and had to tell her my next available appointment is in three months,” Taluz recounted, “and she’s falling apart in front of me and it’s heartbreaking.”

The main purpose of the one-day action on April 25 was to inform the public and Kaiser members (read: patients) about the issue, according to Sandra Ascencio, a striking clinical social worker.

“I think that raising awareness in the community, to inform people like this, is a big issue,” she said. “Specifically in our clinic. We serve the whole San Gabriel Valley. Of all the clinics across Southern California, we are the ones that have the poorest access.”

The clinic’s psychiatry department, said Ascensio, sees 900 new patients each month, a figure that does not account for regular follow-up appointments.

“So obviously there’s a big demand for services,” she said.

“We know that Kaiser has the funds to give us resources to hire more staff, but they just don’t seem to get it,” said Taluz.

Not so, said Kaiser in a pre-strike statement.

“We have been working productively over several years now to improve care and the care experience for our members,” the health maintenance organization said. “We have increased the number of therapists on staff by 30 percent since 2015, despite an ongoing, nationwide shortage of mental health professionals.”

Kaiser pointed to a recent tentative agreement with NUHW’s Psych-Social bargaining unit, that would allow for the continued contracting of outside mental health professionals to ease strains on the appointment schedule, as evidence that common ground can be found through good faith talks.

Backs-and-forths notwithstanding, what appears certain is that mental health facilities at Kaiser, and beyond, are seeing something of a crush.

Taluz said she sees the causes as twofold: “There’s not as much stigma around mental health. There’s a lot more support in society and media around getting services for mental health issues.”

The second driver, she said, is an overall increase in access to healthcare for Americans: “They expect to be able to see a therapist if they’re struggling with depression, anxiety or if they lost a little one. Whatever it is that’s coming up for them.”

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