Kaiser mental health workers in Hawaii begin strike

Kaiser Permanente mental health professionals in Hawaii began a three-day strike May 18.

The strike is likely to affect seven medical facilities and a call center on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island, according to a news release from the National Union of Healthcare Workers. The union represents about 50 Kaiser psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, medical social workers, psychiatric nurses and chemical dependency counselors in Hawaii.

"This strike is about patient care," Daniel Meier, a psychologist at Kaiser's Ala Moana Clinic in Honolulu, said in the release. "We've hit a crisis point where we're being forced to tell people with serious mental health conditions that they'll have to wait months for their next appointment. Kaiser has gotten away for years with underfunding mental healthcare and we're taking action to put an end to that."

The strike comes as the National Union of Healthcare Workers is in negotiations with Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser. It also comes amid Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S.

During negotiations, Kaiser has proposed an agreement that would make recruitment and retainment more challenging, the union said.

Kaiser, for its part, called the strike "unfortunate" and "a bargaining tactic the union has used every time they negotiate a contract with Kaiser."

"It is especially disappointing that the union is asking our dedicated and compassionate employees to walk away from their patients. The need for mental healthcare among our members and patients has never been greater, and the stress and disruption caused by the ongoing pandemic has made it even more important," Kaiser said in a statement shared with Becker's. "We have the greatest respect and gratitude for our mental health professionals and are committed to supporting them in their vitally important work."

Kaiser also called the strike "unwarranted" and said the health system continues to recruit in Hawaii in the face of a national shortage of mental health clinicians. 

Meanwhile, Kaiser said it has rescheduled some behavioral health appointments because of the strike, but added there are psychiatrists and licensed behavioral health managers available to care for urgent needs. 

The strike is scheduled to run through May 20.

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