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Mental health workers say they plan to strike

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On Monday, more than 2,000 mental health care providers at Kaiser Permanente in California say they will go on strike. The therapists and counselors accuse the company of making patients wait too long to connect to critical mental health care. The strike comes at a time when the pandemic has increased the need for mental health treatment and highlighted long-standing problems with access across the country. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee has the story.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Sarah Soroken is a triage therapist with Kaiser Permanente in California.

SARAH SOROKEN: I speak with patients when they call in for the first time requesting mental health services, and I do a brief evaluation and help link them to needed care.

CHATTERJEE: She says the company has never had adequate mental health staff. For as long as she can remember, it's taken patients weeks to get an appointment. Not only does that take a toll on patients and their families, Soroken says it's affected the well-being of providers too.

SOROKEN: Our therapists are leaving Kaiser in record numbers because the workload is unsustainable. They're not able to see patients when patients should be seen.

CHATTERJEE: And the pandemic has only made things worse.

SOROKEN: I've even recently spoken with a parent of a patient - the patient being a child who had a serious suicide attempt recently - and they were waiting a month and a half for their first individual therapy appointment.

CHATTERJEE: Soroken and her colleagues have been asking Kaiser to hire more staff and to make workloads more manageable. But the union negotiations, which have been going on for a year, have failed to reach an agreement.

SOROKEN: So a strike really is a last resort, but the status quo is just unacceptable. The level of suffering is egregious.

CHATTERJEE: Now, access to mental health care is a problem across the country. And it's only gotten worse in the last two years - more people seeking care at a time when a growing number of providers are leaving their jobs. But the state of California recently passed two laws to address some of these problems. Sal Rosselli is the president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents the providers at Kaiser Permanente. He says one law requires that...

SAL ROSSELLI: Every provider has to provide a range of medically necessary care. And if they can't provide it in-house, they have to pay to have it provided externally.

CHATTERJEE: And the second law requires health systems to schedule appointments within 10 days.

ROSSELLI: Kaiser is doing neither of these things, obeying neither of these laws.

CHATTERJEE: Now, the company says it's trying to hire more people. Tricia Rodriguez is senior vice president of clinical services at Kaiser Permanente.

PATRICIA RODRIGUEZ: We've hired nearly 200 new therapists since January of 2021.

CHATTERJEE: But she adds...

RODRIGUEZ: This is not only a problem for Kaiser Permanente. This is across the nation where mental health care worker shortages plague us all.

CHATTERJEE: Psychologist Jared Skillings is with the American Psychological Association. He says the problems at Kaiser isn't just about the number of providers.

JARED SKILLINGS: It's about poor working conditions and the continual requirement to see patients at a pace that is unhelpful for the patient and unhelpful for the clinician - too many patients, too fast, too big a caseload.

CHATTERJEE: Skillings says unless the company addresses these problems and invests in mental health care the way it has in physical health, it will continue to deny patients the mental health care they need. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.