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Kaiser mental health workers hold strike to address staff shortage crisis

Zoe Dym
Kaiser mental health workers gather in front of the Honolulu Medical Office on Aug. 29 to rally against the consortium's staffing shortage in the behavioral health department.

Workers at Kaiser Permanente’s mental health clinics in Hawaiʻi are holding a strike to address its understaffing crisis.

Tami Swonigan has been a Kaiser clinical psychologist for 15 years and says there has been a staffing issue for most of her time there.

"We find out you’re really depressed. We need to help you. We can offer you maybe a kp.org app that you can do. We don’t have anything for an appointment," said Swonigan. "So as a clinician, it really is hard. You’re just burning yourself out. So we have people that are leaving. "

Swonigan was one of about 20 psychologists, clinical and medical social workers, and chemical dependency counselors gathered in front of the Kaiser Honolulu Medical Office on Monday.

The mental health clinics are understaffed and the retention rate is low.

The rally follows Kaiser’s Northern California branch’s third week in an open-ended strike to make the health care consortium improve its access to mental health care.

Swonigan says therapists squeeze in patients during their lunch breaks and work overtime.

The stressful work environment and insufficient benefits contribute to the low retention rate.

According to the National Union of Healthcare Workers, Kaiser currently staffs approximately 1 mental clinician for every 5,500 patients in Hawai’i.

The neighbor island Kaiser insurance holders experience the worst access with nine therapists on Maui and three on the Big Island.

Rachel Kaya, a licensed psychologist with Kaiser, flew in from Maui to show her support.

"Kaiser wants you to believe that there is a shortage of mental health professionals — there’s not. There is a shortage of mental health professionals willing to work for Kaiser," said Kaya

There are approximately 2,700 licensed psychologists and licensed clinical social workers in the state of Hawaiʻi.

Kaya says Kaiser needs to double the number of mental health care workers in order to compensate for the high number of patients.

The workers on strike say they will not return to Kaiser until management hires a sufficient number of mental health care professionals and improves the retention rate.

Kaiser Permanente said in a statement, "It is disappointing that the NUHW has again called on our dedicated and compassionate mental health professionals to walk away from their patients in Hawaiʻi at a time when the need for mental health care is so critical. We continue to focus on providing high-quality care and urge the union to work with us through the bargaining process to finalize a new agreement. "

They said strikes are a bargaining tactic this union has used nearly every time it has bargained for a contract over the past 12 years of its existence.

Zoe Dym was a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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