Kaiser Permanente mental health clinicians authorize strike in Hawaii
Clinicians are also seeking a state investigation into Kaiser’s violation of laws ensuring parity for mental health care
Represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, the mental health clinicians are the third group of Kaiser workers in Hawaii to authorize a strike in recent weeks
News Release from NUHW, Nov 3, 2021
HONOLULU — After three years of contract negotiations, psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and chemical dependency counselors at Kaiser Permanente have authorized a strike. The 51 clinicians who provide mental health and addiction medicine services to 260,000 Kaiser members in Hawaii announced the strike authorization the same day their union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, filed a complaint with state regulators calling for an investigation into Kaiser’s apparent violations of state and federal laws, including mental health parity laws.
In the 57-page complaint filed today with the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, NUHW cites internal Kaiser records documenting how Kaiser's understaffing of its mental health clinics and external provider networks “severely delay thousands of enrollees’ access to mental health services and place their health and safety at risk.” The complaint’s findings include:
- Due to Kaiser’s understaffed clinics, Kaiser members are waiting between six and seven weeks for both initial and return appointments to treat conditions such as depression, PTSD, anxiety, panic attacks and eating disorders. These wait times vastly exceed clinical practice guidelines set by national standard-setting organizations, including the National Committee for Quality Assurance, which accredits Kaiser’s operations in Hawaii.
- Kaiser’s internal records show that only 28 percent of the out-of-network mental health therapists it contracts with to augment the care provided by its directly-employed clinicians are actually accepting Kaiser members for care.
- With only five full-time clinicians assigned to Kaiser’s statewide mental health call center, Kaiser members seeking immediate care for mental health conditions are forced to wait on hold for up to 60 minutes before they can speak to a clinician. Members hang up while on hold 20 to 45 percent of the time, records show, and they wait up to four weeks for a call-back because the call center is so understaffed.
- Kaiser appears to be violating state laws requiring that it conduct performance reviews of its behavioral health services and that it provide members with out-of-network care when it doesn’t have a healthcare provider available or has an insufficient number of providers available.
“I’m currently carrying a caseload of over 150 active therapy patients,” said Rachel Kaya, a psychologist at Kaiser Permanente Maui Lani clinic. “It would take more than five full-time therapists to provide my patients timely, clinically-appropriate care. The access problem causes repeated, shameful, horrifying violations of my professional code of ethics.”
Kaiser’s mental health clinicians formed a union in 2018 in hopes of improving access to care. However, instead of hiring more therapists, Kaiser is proposing significant cuts to wages and benefits that would make it harder to recruit and retain staff. Despite reporting a combined $13.8 billion profit over the last two years, Kaiser is proposing:
- No raises for its current mental health clinicians, along with higher health insurance copays.
- The elimination of pensions and significantly lower pay for mental health clinicians hired after 2022. The wage scale Kaiser is proposing for new hires would cap their salaries far below what current clinicians are currently earning.
“How are we to attract quality clinicians who will stay with Kaiser, if they are not paid an adequate wage,” said Andrea Kumura, a licensed clinical social worker at Kaiser Permanente's Waipio Medical Office. “We already have difficulty hiring, so imagine what it will be like with lower wages and poorer benefits? The only way to fix the massive appointment delays that our patients are experiencing is to hire more clinicians, but Kaiser’s proposal will make hiring even more difficult.”
The strike authorization vote compounds growing labor unrest for Kaiser. Last week, UNITE HERE Local 5 announced that 1,800 Kaiser Hawaii workers had authorized a strike. Kaiser pharmacists, physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists in Hawaii represented by United Nurses Association of California/Union of Health Care Professionals have also authorized a strike.
The strike authorization by Kaiser mental health clinicians does not guarantee that a strike will take place. The clinicians have not yet submitted a formal strike notice to Kaiser and no strike date has been set. Contract bargaining resumes next week.
COVID-19 has sharply increased the demand for behavioral health care. National survey data shows that the rate of anxiety and depression has tripled over the last year, and a recent CDC study found that one in four people age 18 to 24 has seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers is a member-led movement that represents 15,000 healthcare workers in California and Hawaii, including more than 4,000 Kaiser mental health clinicians and medical professionals.
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United Labor Movement Supports Kaiser Permanente Employees’ Strike Notice
News Release from AFL-CIO, November 8, 2021
Joint statement from AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, AFSCME President Lee Saunders, AFT President Randi Weingarten, IBT General President James P. Hoffa, IUOE General President James. T. Callahan, UFCW International President Marc Perrone, UNITE HERE International President D. Taylor and USW International President Thomas M. Conway:
When you attack one of us, you attack all of us. The entire labor movement is behind the Kaiser Permanente employees standing up to corporate greed at its worst. We will put all our efforts into supporting the nearly 32,000 health care workers who are ready to strike on Nov. 15, 2021, unless negotiations improve. An additional 8,000 workers could strike the week after. In all, a total of 52,000 nurses and professional, service and technical workers are represented by AFSCME, AFT, IBT, ILWU, IUOE, UFCW, UNITE HERE and USW at hospitals and clinics in Georgia, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, and are impacted by the negotiations.
These workers risked their lives in a desperate struggle to save patients in a global pandemic, lacking basic protective equipment, sleeping in their cars and hotels to protect their families, and suffering extreme physical and mental health challenges with which they are still coping. While the pandemic is no longer a crisis for many, these health care heroes are now struggling harder than ever, fighting not just COVID-19 and PTSD, but a new tsunami of resignations and retirements that have left them so short staffed that some days their units feel as besieged by patient needs as they were in the darkest days of the surges.
Kaiser Permanente is so financially strong that even during a pandemic, when other health care systems struggled to make ends meet, it was able to return COVID-19 relief money. Even with its financial strength and continued growth, it is demanding health care workers accept a subpar 2% wage increase and a two-tier wage structure that would lower wages for incoming workers by 15% on average. It is also doing nothing to address the huge pay disparities between its Inland Empire workforce and other area workers doing the same jobs. Workers are fed up and vow to stand together for as long as it takes to win dignity, respect, and fair wages and benefits on the job.