Kaiser Hawaii mental health workers set to strike

Kaiser Permanente mental health professionals in Hawaii plan to strike beginning May 18. 

That is according to the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents about 50 Kaiser psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, medical social workers, psychiatric nurses and chemical dependency counselors in Hawaii. 

In a May 12 news release, union representatives cited a need to boost staffing for mental health services and to improve access to care.

"We cannot keep apologizing daily to patients in need and members seeking services, for Kaiser's lack of available care," Tami Swonigan, a psychologist at Kaiser's Waipio Medical Office in Waipahu, Hawaii, said in the release. "Kaiser refuses to take any meaningful steps and the crisis just keeps getting worse."

Specifically, many therapists report their schedules are booked through July, and patients who contact Kaiser's statewide mental health call center are being put on a waitlist, union representatives said.

The strike notice comes as the National Union of Healthcare Workers is in negotiations with Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser.

In a statement shared with Becker's on May 13, Kaiser called the strike notice "unproductive" and said it is committed to reaching a fair agreement as well as to supporting mental healthcare professionals in their work.

The health system also pointed to a national shortage of mental health clinicians that was exacerbated by the pandemic.

"We are actively working to recruit new therapists here in Hawaii and across the country," Kaiser's statement said. "We have significantly expanded our ability to provide virtual care to patients who want it, increasing convenience and access. We also continue to scale up our collaborative care programs that have proven to effectively treat patients with anxiety and depression diagnoses."

But the union said Hawaii's mental health access problems are getting worse at Kaiser clinics, prompting a need for more to be done.

A strike notice does not mean a strike will occur.  However, Kaiser said it "take[s] any potential disruption of services very seriously and are working on contingency plans to ensure our members and patients continue to receive safe, high-quality care."

The three-day strike is scheduled to begin May 18 and run through May 20 at medical facilities in Hawaii.

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