Kaiser Permanente's Hawaiian mental health workers join picket lines as strike enters third week

Updated Aug. 29, 10:30 a.m.

This morning a contingent of Hawaiian psychologists, psychiatric nurses and other mental health workers joined the broader labor strike of 2,000 employees petitioning Kaiser Permanente for new contracts and greater resources directed toward patients' mental healthcare. 

Fifty-seven new professionals kicked off their picket lines at the organization's Oahu medical office and plan to demonstrate in front of its Maui and the Big Island later this week, according to a release from the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

The union wrote that mental health clinic understaffing across the islands "is even more severe than in Northern California" and highlighted the National Committee for Quality Assurance's decision to place Kaiser's accreditation status in Hawaii under corrective action. Clinicians had already held a three-day strike over their concerns in May, according to the union.

Meanwhile, California's 2,000 mental health workers are now entering the third week of their open-ended strike.

Reports surfaced last week that the California Department of Managed Healthcare (DMHC) had launched a targeted enforcement investigation after several patients filed complaints of long wait times for services as required by state law.

"We appreciate the DMHC’s interest and accountability in understanding how we are working to deliver clinically appropriate mental health care during NUHW’s unnecessary strike," Kaiser Permanente told Fierce Healthcare last week in an email statement. "We welcome the opportunity to review the steps we have taken to prepare for and manage through the union’s efforts to disrupt mental healthcare."

Updated Aug. 15, 10:45 a.m.

Over 2,000 of Kaiser Permanente's mental health workers are launching picket lines and protests at clinics in the Bay Area, the Sacramento Region and Central Valley today.

The integrated health system and the National Union of Healthcare Workers have not announced any compromises on contracts or services in the weeks following the news that workers had signed off on an open-ended strike over "dangerously long wait times for therapy" and other complaints. 

"Kaiser is breaking California law and violating clinical standards by making patients wait months just to start therapy sessions and four to eight weeks between appointments," the union wrote on a webpage with frequently asked questions and petitions related to the strike. "It’s unethical. It’s illegal, and we ask you to support our strike to fundamentally improve access to mental healthcare at Kaiser."

The union is also asking patients who have experienced long appointment delays or cancellations to file complaints with the state's Department of Managed Health Care.

Deb Catsavas, Kaiser Permanente's SVP of human resources, previously characterized the demonstrations as a polarizing contract bartering tactic.

She said the health system would have contingency plans in place should the mental health workers walk off the job.

Over 2,000 unionized mental health workers have teed up an open-ended labor strike with “daily picket lines and rallies” outside of Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California facilities, according to an announcement from the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

Set to start on Aug. 15, the demonstrations are framed by the workers as a push to ensure Kaiser Permanente’s patients receive appropriate mental health services.

The union pointed to inadequate investments in additional mental health staff, insufficient programs to combat the burnout of current employees and lengthy delays for patients seeking one-on-one therapy.

“We’re serving a strike notice because our patients aren’t receiving needed services,” Shay Loftus, Ph.D., a psychologist in Kaiser’s Napa/Solano region, said in the union's announcement. “We’re not willing to be part of a system that disrespects the work we do and prevents us from providing ethical care. Kaiser has no excuse to continue treating mental health care as a separate and unequal service, and we’re going to keep striking until that changes.”

Kaiser Permanente Senior Vice President of Human Resources Deb Catsavas said the announcement is the union’s latest bartering tactic in contract negotiations that have stretched on since early 2021.

She said it was “perplexing” that the union, which has been without a contract since last September, announced its plans “when we were so close to an agreement.”

“In our last bargaining session we were about 1% apart in our respective wage proposals, and we came to bargaining last Friday with hopes to bargain vigorously and bring negotiations to a conclusion,” Catsavas said in an email statement. “Unfortunately, union leadership delivered a fully new economic proposal from the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) that avoids reaching agreement and pushes us further apart.”

Ready to strike will be psychologists, therapists, chemical dependency counselors and social workers throughout the Bay Area and from Sacramento to Fresno, the union said in its announcement.

They said the organization staffs about one full-time equivalent mental health clinician for every 2,600 members, cited internal documents suggest follow-up appointment delays of one to three months and highlighted a recently launched state investigation into a high volume of complaints from Kaiser’s behavioral health patients.

With a record $8.1 billion in net income reported during fiscal year 2021, the union said Kaiser can afford to flesh out its behavioral health services and staffing.

“Patients are getting ripped off while Kaiser’s coffers are bulging,” Sal Rosselli, president of NUHW, said in a statement. “We don’t take striking lightly but it’s time to take a stand and make Kaiser spend some of its billions on mental healthcare.”

Catsavas said the system and the union “are still in active bargaining” but that Kaiser will have a contingency plan in place should they not come to terms by Aug. 15. She noted that the union has also been courting Kaiser’s external behavioral health vendors for additional support.

“We have nothing but appreciation and gratitude for our mental health professionals and the extraordinary care they provide to our members,” she said. “We take seriously any threat by NUHW to disrupt care.”