Support grows for strikers in Hawai’i

NewsOctober 27, 2022

Mental health therapists in Hawai’i have seen community and political support grow rapidly as their strike now enters its third month.

While Kaiser Permanente recently settled a contract in Northern California to improve access to mental care, it is still insisting on wage freezes and cuts to retirement pensions in Hawai’i, even though this stance would make it even harder for Kaiser to address the understaffing crisis that led to it being placed under corrective action by its accreditation agency.

Currently Kaiser is demanding to pay its mental health therapists, psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses, and chemical dependency counselors in Hawai’i significantly less than what it pays the same workers in California. The HMO is also insisting on cutting retirement benefits and eliminating pensions for new hires, which would undercut any efforts to increase staffing and reduce appointment wait times which currently exceed two months.

“We’re not asking for anything Kaiser can’t afford or that Kaiser hasn’t provided to other workers,” said Rachel Kaya, a psychologist at Kaiser’s Maui Lani clinic. “We just want to be treated fairly and be able to provide care that meets the needs of our patients.”

Hawai’i political and community leaders are standing with the striking clinicians, and demanding that Kaiser treat its residents and caregivers on par with those in California. Earlier this month, legislators held a rally with striking clinicians at the state capitol and signed a letter calling on Kaiser to settle a fair contract without takeaways.

“There is tremendous bipartisan support for this strike and appreciation of how much Kaiser mental health therapists are sacrificing to improve access to care for so many Hawai’i residents,” Senate Minority Leader Kurt Fevella told reporters. “It’s time for Kaiser to do right by its workers and its patients in Hawai’i and settle a contract that demonstrates a real commitment to achieving parity for mental health care.”

A week later, several lawmakers and community members joined clinicians for a picket outside the offices of Hawaii’s top consumer protection agency, calling on it to investigate a nearly year-old complaint that documented how Kaiser’s under-resourcing of its mental health services was resulting in violations of state law.

“Kaiser Permanente is a multi-billion dollar mainland company that is trying to extract profits out of Hawai’i by illegally denying our residents potentially life-saving care,” said State Representative Amy Perruso, who attended Wednesday’s rally.

On October 21, the Maui County Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on Kaiser Permanente to settle a contract that helps the HMO “improve the recruitment and retention of therapists…” The resolution also called on Kaiser to “increase staffing so Kaiser Permanente can provide timely appointments to mental health patients.”

“We can’t allow Kaiser to continue making Hawai’i residents wait months for potentially life-saving mental health care,” Council Member Gabe Johnson said prior to the vote. “There is a mental health crisis on Maui, and we are going to do everything we can to support our striking therapists who are sacrificing their paychecks to hold Kaiser accountable.”