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Kaiser Permanente Mental Health Clinicians in Hawai’i to Start Open-Ended Strike Monday, Aug. 29

Press ReleasesAugust 25, 2022

Mental health clinicians to strike Kaiser Permanente facilities across Hawai’i beginning 6 a.m. Monday, Aug. 29

Clinicians will strike for as long as it takes to make Kaiser address an understaffing crisis that leaves patients waiting months for therapy sessions.

Hawai’i strike comes as 2,000+ therapists in Northern California enter third week of an open-ended strike to make Kaiser improve access to mental health care.

HONOLULU — Confronting an understaffing crisis that forces patients to wait months for therapy sessions, Mental health therapists at Kaiser Permanente clinics in Hawai’i will begin an open-ended strike Monday, Aug. 29 to demand that the healthcare giant address access-to-care issues that Kaiser’s own accreditation agency wrote “poses a potential patient safety risk.”

The 57 psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, medical social workers, case manager nurses and chemical dependency counselors provide services for 266,000 Kaiser members at seven medical facilities and a call center on Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island.

They will rotate picket line locations the first week of strike as follows:

Monday, Aug. 29

  • Oahu: 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Kaiser Honolulu Medical Office, 1010 Pensacola Honolulu

Tuesday, Aug. 30

  • Oahu: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Moanalua Medical Center, 3288 Moanalua Road, Honolulu

Wednesday, Aug. 31

  • Maui: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Kaiser Maui Lani Medical Office, 55 Maui Lani Pkwy., Wailuku

Thursday, Sept. 1

  • Big Island: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Kaiser Hilo Clinic, 1292 Waianuenue Ave., Hilo

Friday, Sept. 2

  • Oahu: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Kaiser Waipio Medical Office, 94-1480 Moaniani St, Waipahu

The understaffing of Kaiser’s mental health clinics in Hawai’i is even more severe than in Northern California where more than 2,000 Kaiser therapists, also represented by NUHW, are poised to enter the third week of an open-ended strike.

In Hawai’i, clinicians joined NUHW four years ago to advocate for better access to mental health care, but wait times have only grown longer, as frustrated therapists leave faster than Kaiser can hire new ones. While Kaiser, which reported an $8.1 billion profit last year, has boasted to state regulators that it’s gearing up for a hiring spree, it’s demanding that clinicians agree to wage freezes and the elimination of pensions for new hires that would make it harder for Kaiser to hire new therapists and keep the ones it still has.

“We’re going on strike for our patients,” said Rachel Kaya, a psychologist at Kaiser’s Maui Lani clinic.. “All we’re asking from Kaiser is to give us the resources to help our patients get better, and all we get from Kaiser is lip service. If Kaiser was serious about growing its mental health workforce, it wouldn’t be singling us out for cuts that it has never asked of any other union in Hawaii.”

In May, the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) downgraded Kaiser’s accreditation status in Hawaii by placing it under “corrective action” due to its violation of national standards for providing access to mental health care. Responding to a complaint filed by NUHW, investigators with the accreditation agency interviewed Kaiser therapists and concluded that the lack of access to mental health care posed “a potential patient safety risk” and that “Kaiser’s prior efforts to improve access… have largely been ineffective.” Currently, Kaiser is the only health plan in Hawai’i under corrective action.

In addition to challenging Kaiser’s accreditation to make the HMO address its mental understaffing crisis, clinicians held a three-day strike in May and filed a 57-page complaint last November with the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. The complaint, citing internal Kaiser records, documented that patients with severe mental health conditions were waiting months for initial therapy sessions in clear violation of clinical standards and that only 28 percent of Kaiser’s out-of-network mental health providers were actually accepting new Kaiser patients.

Rather than challenge the complaint’s findings, Kaiser issued a 7-page written response last December deflecting responsibility for its violations claiming that it’s hamstrung by a shortage of behavioral health care workers in Hawaii. Although Kaiser told state officials in writing that it planned to hire 44 more clinicians, the number of full-time Kaiser workers providing direct mental health therapy in Hawaii has decreased since November this year from 51 to 48, and many clinicians report that their schedules are now completely booked well into October.

“It’s never been harder for Kaiser patients to access mental health care, and Kaiser’s proposals at the bargaining table would make things even worse,” said Darah Wallsten, a clinical psychologist at Kaiser’s Hilo Clinic. “The only choice we have at this point is to strike for as long as it takes to make Kaiser meet the needs of our patients and stop understaffing our clinics.”

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The National Union of Healthcare Workers represents more than 16,000 healthcare workers in California and Hawaii, including 57 Kaiser mental health providers who provide treatment to 266,000 Kaiser enrollees at seven medical facilities and a call center on Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island.