LOS ANGELES — Mental health clinicians began a week-long strike for more resources with an energetic showing Monday, with hundreds of Kaiser Permanente workers picketing in two of California's largest cities.
Psychologists, therapists, social workers and psychiatric nurses from one of the nation's largest non-profit health maintenance organizations are demanding more staffing to reduce the time patients have to wait for appointments.
"Our patients are suffering," said Mickey Fitzpatrick, a licensed clinical psychologist from Pleasanton. "Every time a patient has to wait four, five, six, seven, eight weeks to get back in to see us, that colludes with the severity of their mental illnesses. And that just really pains me."
When clients cry in front of him talking about their mental illnesses, Fitzpatrick said he has to apologize on behalf of Kaiser that he cannot see them more frequently.
According to the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents the striking clinicians, 4,000 professionals are expected to participate in protests at Kaiser facilities across the state through Friday. Union spokesperson Matthew Artz told USA TODAY just over 1,500 workers collectively picketed Monday in six out of eight locations including Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Psychologist Matt Hannan joined Fitzpatrick among the 400 workers who picketed in San Francisco. Kaiser is not meeting the psychiatric needs of patients, he said, especially when it comes to initial access to therapy and frequency of appointments.
In the South San Francisco Kaiser clinic where he works, Hannan said he often cannot schedule someone for an initial intake until five to six weeks after the day a patient requests therapy. Even a telephone intake, he said, takes up to a two-week wait.
Since 2015, Kaiser has increased the number of mental health professionals statewide by about 30 percent, said vice president of communications John Nelson. He called the strike "completely unnecessary" and "a bargaining tactic."
Five years ago, Kaiser was fined $4 million for violating two California laws — one requiring insurers to provide equal coverage for physical and mental health conditions and another limiting how long patients wait to access to care. About 8.8 million Californians currently get their healthcare through Kaiser, according to the organization.
Licensed clinical social worker Elizabeth White, who works out of Kaiser's West Los Angeles medical offices, said mental health workers need to last one day longer than Kaiser because they stand at the front lines of a civil rights movement. In any given year, 43.8 million adults in the United States experiences mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
"We need to have a solution to these diseases of despair," said White, who picketed along with about 400 others in Los Angeles on Monday. "We have so much technology. We can do video visits, we can link people with apps, but they need to have the individual therapist as the coach or as the thread of their recovery. That relationship is center to any of these evidence-based practices."
While Kaiser has told the union it wants to be the model for mental health, White said, the workers say the health maintenance organization has not gone far enough.
North in San Francisco, Hannan said the union looked focused and confident.
"We're definitely sending a very strong and clear message to Kaiser that they need to up their game with regard to funding psychiatric services appropriately," Hannan said.
The full schedule of this week's planned protests can be found on the union website.