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Kaiser mental health worker strike expands to Hawaii

Mental health workers will join their counterparts in California already on strike over understaffing and long wait times for patients.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Days after mental health workers at Kaiser Permanente Northern California launched an open-ended strike, their counterparts in Hawaii will join the strike to protest what they say is the health giant’s refusal to fully staff mental health services. 

According to the National Union of Healthcare Workers — which represents more than 4,000 mental health clinicians and medical professionals — about 50 mental health clinicians in Hawaii provide care to Kaiser’s 266,000 members there. NUHW members at Kaiser’s mental health care facilities across the Aloha State held a three-day strike this past May over the same issues Kaiser workers in California complain about — long wait times for patients and overwhelmed providers quitting at record numbers.

The health giant’s accreditation in Hawaii faces “corrective action” after clinicians filed a complaint documenting long wait times for mental health appointments. The National Committee for Quality Assurance investigators concluded these access issues are “a potential patient safety risk” and said “Kaiser’s prior efforts to improve access have largely been ineffective.” 

A new Kaiser Hawaii strike begins Aug. 29 with no set end date, the union said.

Health care workers strike at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 15, 2022. (Natalie Hanson/ Courthouse News)

Picket lines went up Monday at Kaiser locations throughout Northern California. A march and rally will take place at Kaiser’s Oakland clinic on Friday.

“We're striking because our patients are waiting months for care in violation of state law and ethical standards of care. Instead of blaming its therapists and making excuses, Kaiser executives need to work with us to address the crisis," Shay Loftus, a psychologist for Kaiser in the Bay Area, said in a statement.

NUHW president Sal Rosselli also had strong words for the health giant. “Kaiser’s business model is to starve its behavioral health services and short change patients who can go months without care,” Rosselli said. “Through strike activity our members are using their power to make Kaiser stop treating mental health care as a second-class service and start providing care that its paying customers are legally entitled to receive.”

When the strike began Monday, state and national mental health advocacy organizations including Steinberg Institute and Mental Health America of California signed a letter urging the California Department of Managed Health Care to “take action to ensure that Kaiser is arranging out-of-network coverage for its enrollees during the likely interruption of services.” 

In a statement Monday, the agency's director Mary Watanabe said it will “closely monitoring Kaiser Permanente’s compliance with the law during the strike,” and said Kaiser patients who feel they haven't received appropriate access to care should call the agency.

State Senate President Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon say they support the striking workers. “The decision to strike impacts workers, families, and entire communities — it is not a decision taken lightly, and we commend the NUHW workers who are standing up for themselves and the wellbeing of their patients," they said in a joint statement,

Since the strike began, the union said Kaiser has canceled thousands of therapy appointments, which triggered a warning from the Department of Managed Health Care. 

The company has released statements that hundreds of clinicians have been hired since January 2021 to address understaffing, and blamed the union for causing longer wait times for patients with workers going on strike. However, Watanabe has said the company must continue providing adequate services to all patients even during a strike. And state lawmakers, after hearing testimonies from patients and providers in the Legislature, have said Kaiser is obligated to follow new laws passed to prevent patients waiting months for follow up appointments. 

The union also said Kaiser broke off bargaining last weekend after rejecting a comprehensive settlement proposal, when therapists accepted Kaiser’s offer on wages but insisted on provisions for increased staffing and reduced appointment wait times.

“Kaiser wants to run mental health care like an assembly line, but all that does is burn out therapists and leave patients waiting even longer for appointments,” said Luzia Daley, a psychologist for Kaiser in Modesto. “If Kaiser can’t provide therapists enough time to do all of our patient care duties, how can it expect us to stay and our patients to get better?”

"It is disappointing that the National Union of Healthcare Workers has again called on our dedicated and compassionate mental health professionals to walk away from their patients in Hawaii at a time when the need for mental health care is so critical,"  Kaiser spokesperson Mark Brown said Thursday. "We continue to bargain in good faith and are committed to reaching a fair and equitable agreement."

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