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Kaiser behavioral health care on the hot seat after California complaints

Cathie Anderson, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

Sharp increase in Kaiser complaints

The California Department of Mental Health Care “help center received a 20% increase in behavioral health complaints for Kaiser in 2021 compared to 2020,” wrote Rachel Arrezola a spokesperson for the department, in response to a Bee inquiry. The department “is committed to ensuring enrollees have appropriate access to behavioral health care when they need it.”

Kaiser’s Shivinsky said: “We believe that a thoughtful, impartial review can help us and other health plans in California address challenges we are all facing. We know that we cannot solve the challenges of the national mental health crisis on our own and look forward to collaboration from across the mental health community.”

Both the company and the union noted that California and the nation as a whole has seen a spike in demand for behavioral health services amid the COVID-19 epidemic.

The nonprofit Mental Health America estimated that more than 2.5 million youth in the U.S. have severe depression, and Black, indigenous and other youth of color are at the greatest risk.

In another key measure of mental health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this month that fatal overdoses have soared by 15% in 2021 with over 107,000 Americans dying. This follows upon a 30% increase in such deaths in 2020.

New California requires timely appointments


Union officials said it’s past time that Kaiser got its act together in managing behavioral health services. They warned state officials that the company was woefully unprepared to comply with a new state law that goes into effect July 1 requiring that health plans accommodate mental health therapy appointments within 10 business days unless the treating clinician determines that a longer wait would not be detrimental.

Already, union officials said, a 2020 survey of Kaiser clinicians found that, on a daily basis, 65% of respondents are scheduling their patients for return appointments further into the future than is clinically appropriate.

Shivinsky said Kaiser has been on a multiyear journey to improve the way mental health care is delivered, but like other providers, it has faced challenges amid a national shortage of clinicians in the field. The company has expanded its ability to provide virtual care to patients who want it; embedded mental health professionals in primary care clinics, pediatric settings, and emergency departments; and expanded collaborative care programs for patients who have anxiety and depression diagnoses.

“Despite all these efforts, we continue to face the same challenges others do,” Shivinsky said. “We haven’t solved the problems facing mental health care, and the pandemic has set us all back.”

Arrezola said that consumers should file a grievance with their plan if they are not getting timely access to behavioral care. If they are not satisfied with their health plan’s response or have been in their plan’s grievance system for longer than 30 days for non-urgent issues, she said, they should contact the DMHC Help Center for assistance at (888) 466-2219 or


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