Hawaiʻi Kaiser clinicians poised to strike over dangerous lack in mental health services

Kaiser Permanente Wailuku Clinic. PC: Wendy Osher

Amid a huge spike in demand for mental health services in Hawaiʻi, Kaiser Permanente mental health professionals will strike this week over severe staff shortages and dangerously long waits for patients to get care.

The three-day strike is slated for Wednesday through Friday at medical facilities throughout the state, according to a news release by the union that represents Kaiser health care workers in Hawaiʻi and in California.

Kaiser psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, medical social workers, psychiatric nurses and chemical dependency counselors in Hawaiʻi will strike in an effort to force the health maintenance organization (HMO) to “both raise standards and better address the growing demand for mental health services,” the release said.

Kaiser officials confirmed to Hawaiʻi regulators that the HMO is dramatically understaffing its mental health services, forcing patients to endure dangerously long waits for care.

“Kaiser executives are making it crystal clear that mental health care does not matter to them,” Rachel Kaya, psychologist at Kaiser Permanente Maui Lani clinic, said in the release. “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.”

The release said Kaiser is infamous for failing to provide adequate mental health care. The HMO has been fined $4 million and forced to accept outside monitoring by state authorities in California for delays and denials of mental health care that Hawaiʻi’s patients have endured for years. 

All of this while the demand for mental health care has skyrocketed, largely due to anxiety and depression spurred by isolation and economic stressors from the pandemic. 

Yet Kaiser has refused to make changes at the bargaining table that would help improve access to care, the release said. 

Kaiser reported an $8.1 billion net profit last year with $56.7 billion in cash and investments.

Despite its strong financial footing, Kaiser has rejected proposals by clinicians to increase staffing and improve access to care, the release said.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers represents more than 16,000 healthcare workers in California and Hawaiʻi, including 58 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.

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