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From Health Law Daily, January 12, 2015

Health plan’s mental health workers strike for adequate staffing

By Michelle L. Oxman, J.D., LL.M.

About 2,600 mental health clinicians employed by Kaiser Permanente (Kaiser) began a seven-day strike on Monday, January 12, 2015, to protest what they describe as understaffing that delays necessary mental health care for Kaiser patients. The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which represents the clinicians, stated that 700 optical and other workers were walking out in support.

The staffing issue. The NUHW claims that it has tried to get Kaiser to correct the staffing levels since 2011, and that the health plan cannot meet state standards for timely access to care, i.e., wait times for appointments, because there are too few clinicians. In June, 2013, the California Department of Managed Health Care entered a Cease and Desist Order, determining that the plan had: (1) violated state regulations governing the maintenance of adequate networks and maintaining a system that accurately tracked waiting times for appointments; and (2) distributed brochures to patients that contained inaccurate information about the mental health services covered. The DMHC found that the plan’s deficiencies were serious and that patients may have been harmed and imposed a $4 million fine. The NUHW also claims that the plan relies too heavily on group therapy rather than individual sessions with patients and that patients with serious mental illness often cannot get initial or follow-up appointments when they are needed.

Kaiser’s position. In statements on the strike, Kaiser admitted that it had paid the $4 million fine. It added that it has hired hundreds of therapists, increasing the number of clinicians by 25 percent during a period when the growth in enrollment was 8 percent.

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