I’m not sure why, but the healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente appears not to care about the people whose lives it covers in California. That’s the only thing that could logically explain why it has continually failed to fund and staff its mental health services in the state to the level necessary to provide timely and adequate care to its residents.
Kaiser failed so badly to provide this bare minimum care that the state ended up fining it $4 million for systematically putting revenues before the care of its customers who have mental health needs.
In any other system, when a company so poorly fails to live up to its responsibilities, that company would be fired. But in the wonderful U.S. mental health system, Kaiser is given chance after chance to do the right thing. So do they?
In California, state law dictates that a patient must be seen within 10 business days after making an appointment for a mental health concern. As just one example of how badly Kaiser flaunts its responsibilities, 60 percent of the people who made an appointment in May 2014 at two of its facilities in California failed to be seen within that 10 day limit. That’s not missing the mark by a little — that’s missing it for the majority of the patients that were being seen!1
Do you have Kaiser healthcare coverage and have a child who needs a neuropsychological assessment? Good luck with that. In Kaiser’s “state of the art” healthcare system, it’s going to take you nearly half a year before you get to see the neuropsych specialist — according to Kaiser’s own data.
And people still say — with a straight face — that the U.S. healthcare system is the greatest in the world. And that you don’t have crazy wait times to get the care and treatment you need. Apparently they aren’t talking about Kaiser in California.
It’s So Bad, The Mental Health Workers Went on Strike
Let’s say you work for a company where all of its employees are under contract. Ever few years, the contract’s terms are renegotiated by your union. If you don’t get a successful renegotiation, the workers keep on working while the negotiators keep on negotiating.
How long would you continue to be employed by a company without a contract?
Kaiser’s been accused of also juggling patients around in order to put a bandaid fix on its 10-day appointment time requirement, reminiscent of the VA scandal from last year. So while you may get your first appointment within that 10-day window, good luck getting your followup appointment. According to some, followup appointments may take weeks or even months to be scheduled. See? Problem fixed!
How long, in good conscious, would you continue to work in a system like that?
Well, mental health professionals at Kaiser in California said “no more.” They are in the third day of a strike at the company to protest how it treats their patients. And to ask for a contract, after 4 years of working without one.
The Problem… And the Solution
The problem is an age-old one in mental health care systems across the U.S. Companies refuse to pay for additional staff, so they extend wait times for as long as they possibly can until people start complaining loudly enough. They refuse to pay higher wages to attract more staff and to retain the staff they have. Because that would cut into their profits.
And whoa… What profits those are! In 2013, the latest year for which figures are available, Kaiser Permanente posted a $2.7 billion profit (or in nonprofit speak, net income). That is some profit!
Since they are a nonprofit, where’s all that money going? Well, into new hospitals and facilities of course. I mean, look at this beauty. Who doesn’t need a hospital that has an emergency room with 51 private rooms? Or a healing garden and meditation room?? Or room service-style meals? Obviously the community of Fontana absolutely needed this essential service. (But remember, if you live in Fontana and needed to get your child in for a neuropsych evaluation, it still may take up to 22 weeks!)
Why do they shaft their mental health workers with low pay and fewer benefits than other healthcare workers in the same facilities? Because they can.
Mental health workers have a weaker union and nobody is afraid of them making much of a fuss. It’s not as if mental health workers were the same as one of Kaiser’s world-class cardiac surgeons who could get on the Today show tomorrow and complain about the sub-standard care.
Despite federal laws to the contrary, Kaiser appears to still want to treat mental health care as a second-class citizen in its facilities.
The solution is simple (and all that the striking workers are asking for). Pay them a decent and fair wage. Mental health workers tend to be the least expensive staff paid for in a healthcare system like Kaiser’s. Don’t significantly cut their health care or retirement benefits.2
And for patient’s safety sake, the striking workers are asking that “Kaiser establish clinician-management committees in each facility to determine staffing levels and outsourcing needs” to finally put an end to the penny-pinching ways of Kaiser’s approach to mental health care in California. In other words, let independent committees figure out what staffing levels would be needed to provide optimum care to their patients — not accountants back at corporate HQ.
If you’re covered by Kaiser, now’s your chance to stand up and say, “I want the mental health care guaranteed by my plan’s benefits. Stop jerking us — the customers — around by making us wait for treatment after that first appointment. And stop paying your mental health professionals like they are a step up from the janitorial staff at your facilities.”
- The findings in the lawsuit that resulted in the $4 million fine state, “The Plan’s access system does not accurately calculate, measure, and monitor the wait times of scheduled appointments, and the Plan does not have adequate quality assurance systems, policies, and procedures designed to ensure that the Plan’s provider network is sufficient to provide accessibility, availability, and continuity of covered health care services.” It is simply beyond belief that the world-class Kaiser didn’t have these kinds of systems in place a few years ago. [↩]
- It should be noted that there’s so much bad blood between Kaiser and the union that’s striking that it was this same union who filed the 2011 complaint that resulted in a state investigation into the allegations and the 2013 $4 million fine against Kaiser. But seriously, should a corporation as big as Kaiser fault the union for bringing suit, when it was concerned — and rightfully so, according to the report and resulting fine — about patient safety issues? Not if they were smart. [↩]