The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an immense worsening of mental health levels across the world. As the number of people with symptoms of depression and anxiety continues to rise, concerns about accessibility to mental health resources have also increased.
Senate Bill 221, drafted by State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and signed into law in October, will require health care organizations and insurers to help patients seeking therapy for mental health and addictions with appointments within a maximum of 10 business days.
But Kaiser Permanente, one of the state’s largest health care providers, may not be equipped to fully meet the requirements of the law when it takes effect Friday. Wiener, along with representatives of the National Union of Health Care Workers and Kaiser Employees, expressed their concern during a virtual press conference last Thursday morning.
Before the law, California patients were forced to wait months to receive return therapy appointments from their insurers after initial health evaluations. During these extended hiatuses, many experienced 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, triage therapist at Kaiser, based in Fairfield.
“Unfortunately, Kaiser does not allow patients with the most severe symptoms to be referred outside of Kaiser for treatment,” Soroken said.
Soroken noted that his patients are subject to six to eight week intervals between individual therapy appointments.
Soroken shared redacted appointment documentation that displayed the time difference between the dates of a patient’s mental health assessment and their first therapy appointment. Some records showed discrepancies of up to two months.
“No matter what Kaiser officials might say, Kaiser is not ready to comply with this law. He is even less ready today than he was when the law was signed eight years ago. months,” she said.
Although the bill was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in October, it comes into effect in early July to give insurers enough time to adjust to the new regulations. This includes hiring more therapists and expanding mental health networks.
However, officials at last week’s briefing were unconvinced that Kaiser had taken the necessary steps to expand its 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, forcing patients to wait eight weeks between appointments. you,” said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Health Care Workers.
“Kaiser might have the best mental health care system in the country,” Rosselli continued. “But again, Kaiser leaders have refused to invest in its mental health services and its members are suffering the consequences.”
Kaiser Permanente, which has been negotiating with NUHW since its contract expired last September, said it is committed to increasing its workforce to meet SB 221 requirements.
“While the shortage of mental health clinicians continues to challenge every California healthcare organization, the implementation of SB 221 into Kaiser Permanente’s model of mental health and addictions care and services is well on its way” , Kaiser said in a statement.
The healthcare provider also said it has invested $30 million to build a pipeline that will educate and train more mental health professionals across the state.
The new requirements of SB 221 provide Kaiser with the opportunity 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 growing mental health needs of our population,” Kaiser’s statement said. “We also need to look to new and innovative approaches to delivering care.”