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Kona Kaiser Therapists Join Picket Line in 3-Day Strike

May 19, 2022, 6:30 AM HST
* Updated May 18, 5:49 PM
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Four Kaiser Permanente therapists took to the picket line Wednesday outside the Kaiser Kona Medical Office to participate in the National Union of Healthcare Workers strike demanding better access for patients they say wait months for mental health care.

NUHW kicked off its three-day strike in Kona and Honolulu on Wednesday. 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.

Kaiser Permanente’s mental health clinicians picket on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, for more staffing. (Tiffany DeMasters/Big Island Now)

The strike comes after four years of failed negotiations between Kaiser and the union. NUHW’s No. 1 issue is understaffing and underfunding mental health care.

During a bargaining session earlier this week, NUHW stated in a press release that Kaiser rejected proposals to increase staffing and proposed 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.

Kaiser’s only three clinical psychologists were joined by O‘ahu Kaiser mental health clinician Tamy Swonigan to strike in Kona.

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“It’s untenable that we don’t have adequate staffing for people in of help,” Darah Wallsten, a clinical psychologist from the Kaiser Hilo office who drove to Kona to participate in the strike, told Big Island Now.

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Wallsten, who would’ve seen seven to eight patients Wednesday, said the decision to strike was a hard one.

“If Kaiser really cared about patients, they’d work with us,” Wallsten said. “I think Kaiser is making it about our wages, but that’s not what it’s about. If we had adequate staffing, I don’t think we’d be doing this.”

Additionally, Wallsten said patients in need of mental health care can visit psychologists affiliated with Kaiser; however, no one is taking new patients.

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Ayako Sakuragi, is a clinical psychologist based in Kona. She told Big Island Now that it’s heartbreaking to see a patient wait two to three months to get an initial appointment to see a therapist.

“Especially kids,” Sakuragi added. “Two months is so long and we don’t even have a dedicated child psychologist.”

The Kona psychologists say it can take up to two months to get an initial appointment with a psychologist on the Big Island. Once an initial appointment is made, a follow-up visit takes another two months.

Kaiser Kona Medical Office

“It’s really about giving care in a timely, consistent manner,” Sakuragi said.

Wendy Biss is the only other clinical psychologist based in Kona. She told Big Island Now that she’s striking because of the understaffing.

The understaffing and massive caseloads have gone on for several years. During the past year, Biss has been scheduling over every meeting and lunch break to see patients.

“I don’t want to see clients not get the care they deserve,” Biss said.

While the clinicians talked about wages, Biss and Sakuragi say they have to hold a second job to make ends meet.

Kaiser spokeswoman Laura Mott said the health care provider continues to actively recruit mental health clinicians in the face of a national shortage.

“It is unfortunate that NUHW has taken the unproductive action of calling for a three-day strike of approximately 50 Behavioral Health workers,” Mott told Big Island Now on Wednesday. “This is a bargaining tactic the union has used every time they negotiate a contract with Kaiser Permanente.”

In the past 12 months, Mott said Kaiser has 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,” she added.

Mott said 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,” Mott said.

A bargaining session is scheduled for May 31. 

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