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Kaiser mental health providers planning to strike want more staff and support

Ryan Kawailani Ozawa

Local Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians planning to go on a three-day strike say they want increased funding and additional staff amid a "growing demand for mental health services."

Dr. Darah Wallsten, a clinical psychologist at Kaiser’s Hilo Clinic, is one of only three therapy staff covering Kaiser members on Hawaiʻi Island. The understaffing has led to long wait times for patients.

“It's really hard to meet with people that maybe have waited two months for an appointment after their initial call. And then they find out that I may not be able to bring them back for another six to eight weeks," Wallsten told HPR.

Kaiser Permanente psychologists, licensed clinical social workers and other mental health care professionals are set to go on a three-day strike starting Wednesday, May 18.

While Kaiser has settled labor agreements with other staff in its system, it has not settled with those working in mental health.

The strike is being organized by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents 58 Kaiser mental health providers.

Kaiser Permanente said it is negotiating an initial collective bargaining agreement with the union.

“We are not surprised that NUHW is now threatening to strike – this is a bargaining tactic this union has used every time it has bargained for a new or renewed contract with a Kaiser Permanente entity, over the past 12 years of its existence," Kaiser Permanente said in a statement. "We recently reached a contract agreement with NUHW in Southern California, which has been ratified by our employees.”

"Unfortunately, NUHW leadership has taken the unproductive action of issuing a strike notice for May 18. Kaiser Permanente continues to believe the best place for us to resolve our differences is at the bargaining table," the statement said.

The strikers hope the health care provider will both raise standards and pay, and address the increased demand for mental health services due to isolation caused by the pandemic.

"It's very painful for many of us to get to this point of striking because the idea, you know, three days means, hundreds, I don't even, probably more than that, of people across the islands are going to be rescheduled. And if there was any way we could avoid it, that's what we would have done," she said.

Jason Ubay is the managing editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Send your story ideas to him at jubay@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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