Health care workers worry about implementation of new state

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an immense worsening of mental health levels across the globe. As the number of people with symptoms of depression and anxiety continues to surge, concerns about the accessibility to mental health resources have also grown.

Senate Bill 221, authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and signed into law in October, will require health care organizations and insurers to assist patients seeking mental health and substance use therapy with appointments in no more than 10 business days.

But Kaiser Permanente, one of the state’s largest health care providers, might not be equipped to fully meet the law’s requirements when it went into effect Friday. Wiener, along with representatives from the National Union of Healthcare Workers and Kaiser employees, expressed their concern at a virtual press conference last Thursday morning.

Prior to the law, California patients have been forced to wait months to receive return therapy appointments from their insurers after initial health assessments. During those prolonged gaps, many have endured further deterioration in their mental health before seeing a therapist.

“Often I am not able to offer these patients a timely appointment within Kaiser and ask managers for immediate accommodation outside of Kaiser,” said Sarah Soroken, a triage therapist at Kaiser who is based in Fairfield.

“Unfortunately, Kaiser does not allow the patients with the most severe symptoms to be referred outside of Kaiser for treatment,” Soroken said.

Soroken noted that her patients are subjected to six- to eight-week gaps between individual therapy appointments.

Soroken shared redacted appointment documentation that displayed the time difference between the dates of a patient’s mental health evaluation and their first therapy appointment. Some records showed gaps of up to two months.

“No matter what Kaiser officials might say, Kaiser is not ready to comply with this law. It is even less ready today than it was when the law was signed eight months ago,” she said.

Though the bill was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October, it is taking effect at the start of July to allow enough time for insurers to adjust to the new regulations. This includes hiring more therapists and expanding mental health networks.

However, officials at last week’s briefing were not convinced Kaiser have taken the necessary measures to expand their resources.

“Kaiser officials say they’re hiring mental health clinicians, but they don’t say how many mental health clinicians they’re losing because their therapists are fed up, making patients wait eight weeks between appointments,” said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

“Kaiser could have the best mental health care system in the country,” Rosselli continued. “But again, Kaiser executives have refused to invest in its mental health services and its members are suffering the consequences.”

Kaiser Permanente, which has been in bargaining with NUHW since their contract expired last September, has maintained that they are committed to growing their workforce in order to meet the requirements of SB 221.

“Although the shortage of mental health clinicians continues to challenge every California health care organization, implementation of SB 221 to Kaiser Permanente’s model of mental health and addiction care and services is well underway,” Kaiser said in a statement.

The health care provider has also reported investing $30 million to build a pipeline that will educate and train more mental health professionals across the state.

The new requirements of SB 221 present Kaiser with the chance to make structural changes to their mental health networks.

“We know that training and hiring more therapists will not be enough to meet the complex and increasing mental health needs of our population,” Kaiser’s statement said. “We must also look to new and innovative approaches to providing care.”