Holding picket signs and chanting, therapists with the National Union of Healthcare Workers, along with a number of supporters, demonstrated outside of Kaiser Permanente's Pasadena Medical Offices today. They say their clinics are understaffed, and that's forced some patients into waiting more than three months for return appointments.

"It doesn't matter what [a patient's] situation is," said Tanya Veluz, a marriage and family therapist at the Pasadena clinic. "They could be struggling with parenting, they could be going through bereavement, they could have a bipolar disorder. They're still gonna have to wait three months."

Kaiser Permanente and the NUHW have been embroiled in a state-wide, multi-year conflict over the quality of mental health care services. In December of last year, NUHW organized a five-day strike at more than 100 Kaiser Permanente facilities across the state. Veluz said the situation has not improved, and is particularly bad in Pasadena.

"It's extremely disheartening to sit there and tell someone you can't see them. And you watch them not getting better. That's the reason we want to do this is we want to see people getting better and help."

Kaiser Permanente’s Pasadena Medical Offices
Kaiser Permanente’s Pasadena Medical Offices

Veluz said she is one of 21 full-time therapists, serving roughly a thousand people. They've asked Kaiser Permanente for four additional therapists. She said Kaiser Permanente responded that they cannot afford to hire anyone else.

Mental health is in a crisis nationwide. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 43.8 million people – approximately one in five adults – suffer from mental illness in a given year, but there is a shortage of mental health professionals to treat them. Major depression and suicide rates have been rising across the country, and service providers have not kept up.

A 2016 study by the Health Resources and Services Administration estimates future workforce shortages for a wide range of mental health care providers, including psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health and substance abuse social workers, school counselors, and marriage and family therapists.

According to Veluz, the situation has begun to affect the staff in Pasadena, some of whom have gone on medical leave due to stress.

"We do everything possible. We stay late, we call patients, we try, but definitely it's heartbreaking and burns people out."

Tanya Valuz, a therapist at Kaiser’s Pasadena Clinic, speaks during the strike. (Jon Reed)
Tanya Valuz, a therapist at Kaiser’s Pasadena Clinic, speaks during the strike. (Jon Reed)

When contacted for comment, Elita Adjei, Kaiser Permanente's Director of Media Relations and Digital Programs for the Southern California region, sent a statement with the following:

"It is important to note, we are meeting the established regulatory standard for first appointments for mental health and wellness on average more than 90 percent of the time, statewide. We also monitor specialty return visits and are ensuring that we follow therapists' care recommendations for the timing of these visits, as documented by them, between 86-94 percent of the time."

The statement also called the strikes, like the one today, a bargaining tactic.

"Until recently, the union's demands at the bargaining table have not been about improving care and access. Rather, in addition to seeking even higher wages and benefits, the union had demanded changes that would reduce, not increase, the availability of mental health care for our patients."

Veluz disagrees.

"There's not one provider here that cares about the money. They're all here fighting for these patients that they see everyday. They want just more providers in our office. They don't care about the money."

She says she's fighting for change. And that is what's keeping her going.