Kaiser mental health workers continue 3-day strike
About 50 mental health behavioral specialists with Kaiser Permanente continued their three-day strike on Oʻahu and Maui on Friday.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers organized the picket that began on Wednesday. NUHW cited high demand for mental health services contributes to insufficient patient care from its union members.
Kaiser employs about 50 full-time equivalent clinicians, which compared with over 266,000 members in-network, has led to a ratio of about one clinician to every 5,320 members, NUHW said.
Licensed clinical social worker Andrea Kumura works at the Waipio Medical Office. She said understaffing has been an issue for the last decade, and has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
"It's actually gotten to the point where if you're a patient seeking services for things like depression, anxiety, PTSD, an eating disorder, even, you have long waits on the phone to eventually call and talk to somebody to schedule an appointment," Kumura said Thursday as she picketed.
That appointment, she said, would usually not be scheduled for another two to three weeks out.
"Then, once you actually see your provider and have an assessment, get a diagnosis, you have to wait another two to three months to start treatment, which basically means people are having to wait anywhere from four to six months to start treatment for mental health diagnoses, and we just think that that is too long people are suffering," she said before the crowd moved to the offices of Hawaii’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Insurance Division to call on the office to encourage Kaiser to increase staffing.
Kaiser Permanente issued a statement apologizing for any disruption in service when the strike started.
"All patients with appointments in this timeframe have been contacted and we have psychiatrists and licensed behavioral health managers available to care for urgent needs," Kaiser said. "We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience the union’s strike may cause."
Kaiser also called the strike an unwarranted and unproductive bargaining tactic.
"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," the company said. "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 and the union will next meet on May 31.