SAN DIEGO (CNS) - About 4,000 unionized mental health clinicians at Kaiser Permanente facilities across the state, including in San Diego County, began a five-day strike Monday amid a continuing labor dispute.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers contends the dispute is focused on what it calls under-staffing issues at Kaiser facilities "that force patients to wait a month or more for therapy appointments."
"Access to mental health care is a civil rights issue," NUHW President Sal Rosselli said in a statement. "This strike is a clear message to Kaiser that its mental health clinicians won't stand by silently while their patients can't get the care they need."
Kaiser officials counter, however, that the standoff is centered on money, not staffing.
"The union's principal demands at the bargaining table have not been about improving care and access, but are about gaining even higher wages and benefits and demanding changes to performance standards that would reduce, not increase, the availability of mental health care for our members," according to a statement from Kaiser.
Kaiser noted that the union's most recent contract included three years of guaranteed wage hikes and bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, and the health system's current contract includes salary offers that "would keep our expert therapists among the best compensated in their profession."
Union officials said the weeklong job action could shut down or severely limit services for the week at more than 100 clinics across the state. According to NUHW, the clinicians are pushing for more authority in treatment decisions and want the health system to "stop sending one-third of patients -- approximately 40,000 people per year -- to firms that contract with private therapists, are not accountable to Kaiser and often don't have access to patient medical records."
The union also contends the ratio of mental health clinicians to Kaiser members hasn't changed since 2015.
Kaiser officials said contracting with community therapists "is another key tool we've used to improve access for our members."
According to the health system, plans are in place to continue offering services during the strike. But Kaiser officials said it was "particularly disheartening that the union leadership would call this strike during the holiday season, when many of our patients with mental health needs may be at their most vulnerable."