Kaiser Permanente, Example of California's Mental Health Crisis

Kaiser Permanente won't be using testimony from this week's state Senate hearing on mental health services in any of its $50 million advertising plans next year. If it did, it would have to change its "Thrive" campaign to a "Withering" campaign. 

In devastating testimony at a joint hearing of the Senate Committee on Health and the Select Committee on Mental Health on Wednesday, family members of Barbara Ragan described the last desperate months of her life as she dealt with the insurer before the 83-year-old killed herself in July by jumping off a Kaiser parking garage in Northern California. 

Californians with mental illness continue to fight for appropriate access to services, with advocates saying that insurers discriminate against mental health patients. The hearing was to discuss the enforcement of the California Mental Health Parity Act, which requires managed care providers to provide psychiatric services that are equal in quality and access to their primary care services.  Health experts who testified at the meeting said the expansion of medical care under the Affordable Care Act had increased an already acute shortage of qualified medical mental health professionals. 

Lawmakers questioned Kaiser's commitment to mental health services (except for clearly uncomfortable co-Chair Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, who has been supported by, and is a landlord of, the insurer) for obvious reasons. 

The health insurer paid a $4 million fine last year to the state Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) based on allegations that it inadequately treated mental health patients, including long wait times to see medical professions, confusing information about how long it would take for an appointment, and that some patients were discouraged in seeking necessary medical services.The department also found that Kaiser likely violated state and federal mental health parity laws. A follow-up report by the agency in February found that some patients were still waiting too long. In addition, families of other patients who committed suicide have sued Kaiser. 

Ragan, a retired Kaiser worker, had battled depression for years. Starting in March, and over a succession of months, her psychiatrist repeatedly changed her anti-depressant medications, telling her to stop taking Prozac and prescribing Zoloft and anti-anxiety medication Xanax, her daughter, Denise, told lawmakers. All of the consultations and changes were done on the phone, she said. Despite the different medications, Ragan's emotional problems persisted, and at one point, she even visited an emergency room because of her worsening condition. In June, Kaiser sent her a notice with an appointment for a psychiatrist on Aug. 25. Ragan was distraught about the two months wait, her family said. In July, Ragan, dressed in pajamas and slippers, left home and committed suicide, leaving a note behind that said, she "couldn't stand the pain."  

State Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, who has helped lead the legislative fight to reform the mental health system for years, was so shocked by the story, he asked the DMHC to look into the case. 

"We want to make sure insurers don't operate on, what I call, a fail first medical system," the senator said. "Where people have to fail before they get services. That's my suspicions here, but I'd like to have the department examine it."   

Health experts said more needed to be done to fix the mental health system, including incentives to attract more qualified medical professionals to the field, carefully informing patients and their families of their rights and benefits, and monitoring provider networks. Kaiser should take note, and use some of its profits to adequately fund these mental health priorities.

At the hearing, Denise Ragan pleaded for lawmakers to force insurers to follow the law.

"We want this to stop," she said. "We want people to get the care and services they need. The healthcare providers are profiting greatly from the money they receive from their members. These members expect and deserve these services."

The Legislature must demand better enforcment, and Kaiser has to learn from Ragan's story, considering it just announced that it planned to build a new medical school to "train future physicians on 21st century medicine." Kaiser's future "model of care"  needs to be much better than Kaiser's present model of care for mental health patients. 

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