Kaiser Permanente, union strike: Tentative contract reached

Kaiser Permanente and the National Union of Healthcare Workers inked a proposed four-year contract Tuesday, ending the 10-week standoff between mental health workers and the Oakland-based integrated health system.

More than 2,000 therapists, chemical dependency counselors and social workers in Northern California went on strike Aug. 15, claiming that insufficient staffing levels and long wait times jeopardized patients. About 50 mental healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente sites in Hawaii joined the strike in late August, which was more than a year after negotiations began.

The union alleged that delays in scheduling mental health appointments violated state law. Kaiser hired nearly 200 mental health workers since January 2021 and launched a $500,000 recruiting initiative, a health system spokesperson countered.

No details on the proposal were released. A two-day vote will start Tuesday night, the organizations said.

California regulators investigated Kaiser during the strike to ensure the health system booked intake appointments within 10 days and follow-up visits 10 days later. State officials received 19 complaints about access during the first five days of the strike, according to the California Department of Managed Health Care.

Half of the counties in the U.S. do not have a psychiatrist or an addiction medicine specialist, according to 2020 data compiled by George Washington University. The shortages have disproportionately affected low-income consumers, as nearly 1 of 4 behavioral health providers did not see any Medicaid beneficiaries in 2020, the university’s analysis found. That is, in part, because behavioral health clinicians are generally paid less than other specialists with similar levels of education. Also, patients often struggle to book timely mental health appointments given the limited networks of many payers’ plans.

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