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Sen. Hirono asks Kaiser Permanente to address ongoing strike of mental health workers

Kaiser strike
Zoe Dym

Kaiser Permanente Hawaiʻi's mental health workers have now been on strike for nearly four months — with no real end in sight.

They have been asking the hospital’s administration to increase their wages and benefits, as well as hire more therapists.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers have been representing the Kaiser therapists at the bargaining table. They organized several informational picketing events during the four months.

They state that Kaiser has less than 60 psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and chemical dependency counselors to care for its 266,000 members in Hawai’i, and that the shortage forces patients to wait months for therapy — a violation of state law and clinical standards.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono sent a letter on Wednesday to Kaiser’s CEO Greg Adams to come to a good faith agreement with the workers.

“This level of care requires retaining the current skilled workforce and recruiting new talent into the state—not engaging in years-long contract disputes. These workers deserve a fair wage, and patients deserve dependable, quality care," said Hirono in a statement Wednesday.

The letter was signed by six other senators including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Hirono supported her colleagues in a similar letter to Kaiser's CEO last year.

"We ask that you take time this holiday season to consider the workers on which your company and patients depend and finalize a contract,” the senators wrote in the letter.

Hirono mentioned the health care company has been able to reach an agreement with workers in other states, and asked Adams to make the same effort with the workers on strike in Hawaiʻi.

Kaiser responded with the following:

Kaiser Permanente appreciates and shares the senator’s interest in a timely resolution to the strike called by NUHW.

We value our mental health professionals and are deeply disappointed that they remain on strike. We want to reach a mutually beneficial agreement and we want our people back doing what they do best – taking care of patients. To that end, we have been negotiating in good faith and have a very competitive offer on the table, which includes a wage proposal that is above market for mental health professionals in Hawaii.

While NUHW claims to be advocating to improve mental health care, a number of NUHW activists have been contacting community therapists encouraging them not to see Kaiser Permanente patients during the strike. We were dismayed by these actions. Interfering with needed patient care should not be a bargaining strategy.

Despite a significant shortage of mental health workers here and nationally, Kaiser Permanente has made significant investments to expand behavioral health capacity with the goal of improving member access, overall quality, and developing a reliable pipeline of clinicians in Hawaii.

In addition to our focus on hiring and retention, Kaiser Permanente has been working diligently to find community providers with new or additional capacity to see our patients. We have contracted and credentialed 52 additional external providers since the strike began and have several dozen existing contracted providers opening additional appointments for Kaiser Permanente members. Currently there are more than 100 Kaiser Permanente contracted mental health providers accepting new patients.

We will continue to bargain in good faith with NUHW and strongly believe that the bargaining table, not a public forum, is the best place for substantive and productive labor negotiations.

Zoe Dym is a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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