Kaiser Permanente Therapists Take to Picket Line
Kaiser Permanente therapists are striking today statewide to demand better access for patients they say wait months for mental health care.
Mental health clinicians are kicking off their strike in Honolulu and at Kaiser Kona Medical Office. The National Union of Healthcare Workers says the strike is to demand the HMO fix its broken mental health system that leaves patients waiting months for appointments and therapists overwhelmed with unmanageable caseloads.
The strike by more than 50 psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, medical social workers, psychiatric nurses and chemical dependency counselors is likely to impact services at seven medical facilities and a call center on O‘ahu, Maui, and the Big Island.
“This strike is about patient care,” said Daniel Meier, a psychologist at Kaiser’s Ala Moana Clinic in Honolulu. “We’ve hit a crisis point where we’re being forced to tell people with serious mental health conditions that they’ll have to wait months for their next appointment. Kaiser has gotten away for years with underfunding mental healthcare and we’re taking action to put an end to that.”
According to a press release from National Union of Healthcare Workers, no progress was made during a bargaining session on Tuesday, and no sessions have been scheduled while clinicians are on strike.
“Kaiser, which reported an $8.1 billion net profit in 2021 and $56.7 billion in cash and investments, has rejected proposals to increase staffing and improve patient access,” the release states. “The HMO’s proposal would result in a wage freeze for more than 60% of its mental health workforce along with cuts to retirement and health benefits that would make it even harder for Kaiser to recruit and retain mental health therapists.”
According to NUHW, Kaiser currently employs approximately 50 full-time equivalent clinicians who provide direct mental health care for Kaiser’s 266,000 members in Hawai‘i, a ratio of approximately one mental health clinician for every 5,320 Kaiser members in the state.
In November, NUHW filed a 57-page complaint with the Hawai‘i Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. The complaint, utilizing Kaiser’s own records, found Kaiser members were waiting months for their first therapy session due to understaffed clinics, only 28% of Kaiser’s out-of-network mental health therapists are accepting new Kaiser members for care, and Kaiser’s understaffed statewide mental health call center routinely forces patients to wait on hold for up to an hour before they can speak to a clinician, and up to four weeks for a return call.
According to the NUHW press release, Kaiser issued a seven-page written response last December “deflecting responsibility for its violations claiming that it’s hamstrung by a shortage of behavioral health care workers in Hawai‘i.”
Despite telling state officials it planned to hire 44 more mental health clinicians, NUHW press release states the number of full-time Kaiser clinicians providing mental health care in Hawaii has decreased since November from 51 to 47, and many clinicians report that their schedules are now completely booked through July.
“Kaiser has the resources and the responsibility to provide clinically appropriate, evidence-based mental health care, but it hasn’t stepped up to the plate,” Meier said. “We can’t keep telling our patients who are desperate for therapy that we’re booked solid for months. It’s unethical, and it has to stop.”
Kaiser released a statement saying it is unfortunate that NUHW has “taken the unproductive action of calling for a 3-day strike of approximately 50 Behavioral Health workers.”
“It is especially disappointing that the union is asking our dedicated and compassionate employees to walk away from their patients,” Kaiser stated. “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.”
Kaiser states they take any potential disruption to care or services very seriously and are contacting all patients with appointments in this timeframe as a precautionary measure.
Kaiser also stated they strongly believe the strike is unwarranted.
“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,” Kaiser stated. “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.”
Kaiser Permanente 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.