Today the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) is calling on 4,000 of its members in California to walk out on Kaiser Permanente for 24 hours, from 7 a.m. today to 7 a.m. tomorrow.
As many as 17,000 registered nurses with the California Nurses Association (CNA), as well as other workers with a smaller engineers union could join the action in sympathy.
Kaiser facilities will still be open, staffed with replacement workers. NUHW member Ann Amato in Sacramento is particularly well-suited to describe the contract dispute with the HMO.
Ann Amato: I'm a licensed clinical social worker, I'm a therapist and have worked for Kaiser going on 18 years. I am also an NUHW Steward and part of the bargaining committee.
Rachael Myrow: So, what is the union's beef?
Amaro: We're on strike for a stronger voice and protect patient care -- we've needed to increase our staffing levels for years, and also to keep Kaiser from cutting our benefits at a time when they're making record profits. We presented an entire package last March and they haven't responded and we keep asking them to respond.
What they really want is for us to repropose our package, and we're not going to because we want to maintain the benefits we have currently. So, they want us to go to a 401(k), they want to cut our spouse out totally so that we have to pay for that privately. And they're giving us a voucher of $175 to pay for $300 to $500 of care per month, which is...they used to just give us a plan to retire with and cover our spouses.
Myrow: Have you taken this case to federal regulators?
Amato: No, this is in the bargaining process. We have taken the case of our patient care to the regulators. We have presented a white paper, which is a survey amongst all our practitioners, about patient care because our patients, for example, are waiting as long as four, five, six, eight weeks for a return appointment and this is not by regulation.
So we took the survey from the clinicians, put it in white paper, it's all backed by our professional organizations, and presented it to the Department of Managed Healthcare, and they're now looking at the deficiencies.
Myrow: So we're talking about Kaiser's mental health services?
Myrow: Is this something that would be folded into the contact talks? It's a separate issue.
Amato: No, it's a huge part of the issue. We have battled over the months to try to get a voice for patient care, getting them to look at the fact that we have been chronically understaffed for decades.
Basically, our chief is saying, "it's not a problem, we're fine;" in the face of what we've known for a long time that we don't have enough staff to do the work we need to do.
Myrow: What does it do to patients to not have timely care?
Amaro: Basically, they can get in the door, but they can't get a repeat appointment; so it just delays them being seen and them being treated. They get worse in the meanwhile, they drop out or treatment just takes so much longer because if you had a couple months where you could see them on a regular basis they might be able to get through it.
But now it gets delayed out six to eight months because of the wait times for appointments. Critical care patients are not getting what they need and they're often times putting people in a group because there's no other place to put them.
Myrow: Ann Amato is a licensed clinical social worker at Kaiser and a member of the bargaining committee for the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
In a written statement, Kaiser says it is bargaining in good faith with the NUHW and that the union's allegations that Kaiser wants to eliminate retirement benefits are "simply untrue."
Kaiser also believes the CNA's involvement in today's strike is "expressly prohibited in its contract with that union," a position the HMO is pursuing in federal court.