Nearly five dozen Kaiser Permanente mental health professionals across Hawaii plan to strike this week.
The three-day strike by the 58 psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, medical social workers, psychiatric nurses and chemical dependency counselors represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers was announced Friday.
Matthew Artz, spokesperson for the National Union of Healthcare Workers, said a bargaining session was held Tuesday, however, no progress was made. No bargaining is scheduled during the strike.
"We're fighting to make Kaiser provide mental health care that will actually address the needs of our patients," said Darah Wallsten, a clinical psychologist at Kaiser's Hilo Clinic. "The situation right now is not tenable. Our patients are enduring dangerously long waits for care, and Kaiser's proposals would make things even worse."
The strike begins today and continues through this Friday. Kona Medical Center-based staffers are slated to picket from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. today joining their counterparts in activities slated through end of the week.
"It is unfortunate that NUHW has taken the unproductive action of calling for a 3-day strike of approximately 50 Behavioral Health workers. This is a bargaining tactic the union has used every time they negotiate a contract with Kaiser Permanente," Kaiser Permanente said in a statement.
"It is especially disappointing that the union is asking our dedicated and compassionate employees to walk away from their patients. The need for mental health care among our members and patients has never been greater, and the stress and disruption caused by the ongoing pandemic has made it even more important. We have the greatest respect and gratitude for our mental health professionals and are committed to supporting them in their vitally important work. We urge our employees to reject the union's call for a strike, continue to focus on providing high-quality care and work with us through the bargaining process to finalize a new mutually beneficial agreement," the statement continued.
The move to strike comes as negotiations between the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and Kaiser continue. According to the union, Kaiser has settled labor agreements with other staff in its system, but has not settled with those working in mental health.
The strike, according to the union, is needed to force the health maintenance organization (HMO), which serves over 260,000 Hawaii residents, to "both raise standards and better address the growing demand for mental health services."
"Access to mental health care is very bad for Kaiser patients and this strike is an effort by Kaiser caregivers to make Kaiser better fund its mental health services so people can get the care for which they are paying," Artz said.
The union pointed to Kaiser officials confirming in a December 2021 letter to the state Health Insurance Division that the HMO was understaffing its mental health services, forcing patients to endure long waits for care. Despite the uptick in demand for services, particularly amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the union alleges Kaiser has "refused to make changes at the bargaining table that would help improve access to care."
Rachel Kaya, a psychologist at Kaiser Permanente Maui Lani clinic, said Kaiser's executives are making it "crystal clear that mental health care does not matter to them."
"As a therapist, my caseload is five times what it should be, and my patients can't get the care they're paying to receive. The problem isn't that there are too few mental health clinicians in Hawaii; the problem is that Kaiser doesn't want to pay to provide the level of mental health care that its members need," she said.
Kaiser said it strongly believes the strike is unwarranted, adding the organization has been working to recruit staff.
"In the face of a national shortage of mental health clinicians, and the growing need for mental health services, Kaiser Permanente continues to actively recruit in Hawaii to ensure care is available for our members. In the last 12 months, we have hired 21 Behavioral Health clinical staff. We have also significantly expanded our ability to provide virtual care to patients who want it, increasing convenience and access. We are committed to continuing this essential work," the statement said.
Kaiser Permanente vowed Tuesday it will continue to bargain in good faith with NUHW to reach a fair and equitable agreement.
"We are confident that the best place for us to resolve the economic and other issues, still under discussion, is at the bargaining table," the HMO said.
Kaiser said Tuesday that most appointments for the facility will not be impacted by the strike involving mental health workers. Officials encouraged people with appointments on days with picketing activities set to arrive early due to potential traffic congestion.
"We take any potential disruption to care or services very seriously and are contacting all patients with appointments in this timeframe as a precautionary measure. Although some behavioral health appointments have been rescheduled, we have Psychiatrists and licensed Behavioral Health managers available to care for urgent needs. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience the union's strike may cause," Kaiser's prepared statement read.