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Some 2,000 mental health care clinicians in California are on strike

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Almost 2,000 mental health care workers have walked off the job in California. They work for Kaiser Permanente, and they want their employer to hire more people - more psychologists, more social workers. Here's Lesley McClurg of our member station KQED in San Francisco.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Care delayed is care denied.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: Picketers in bright red shirts carry signs that read patient health, not corporate wealth. Naomi Johnson is a social worker in the East Bay. She says she's exhausted and angry.

NAOMI JOHNSON: I feel like every day I have to choose between either taking care of myself or taking care of my patients. And oftentimes what happens is neither of us gets taken care of.

MCCLURG: Johnson says nearly all of the managers in her clinic are leaving because they're burnt out.

JOHNSON: I want to be able to consult and think really deeply about what people need and help them towards their goals. And I can't really do that unless I overextend myself.

MCCLURG: The National Union of Health Care Workers is demanding Kaiser give providers more time to handle follow-up administration for patient visits. But the company says that would mean clinicians see fewer patients. Dr. Sameer Awsare is the director of mental health care at Kaiser.

SAMEER AWSARE: The union is well aware that its decision to strike is intended to hurt Kaiser Permanente's ability to meet the needs of our patients.

MCCLURG: The union says patients often have to wait four to eight weeks to get an appointment at Kaiser. That violates a new California law, which requires follow-up appointments within 10 days. For years, Barbara McDonald has struggled to get her 19-year-old daughter help from Kaiser.

BARBARA MCDONALD: She basically only gets care when she ends up in the ER.

MCCLURG: The teen has a history of cutting herself. She suffers from bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and ADHD.

MCDONALD: When she cut her throat in September - she has only seen a Kaiser psychiatrist two times since September, which is almost a year - two times in one year.

MCCLURG: Kaiser says it's trying to hire more providers, but the entire country is facing a shortage of mental health care workers.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in San Francisco.

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

Lesley McClurg