The board of trustees of the Hawaii Employer-Union Health Benefits Trust Fund passed a motion Tuesday that will allow its members who serve as public workers for the state to change insurance coverage.

State and county workers and teachers currently covered by Kaiser Permanente will be able to change to the Hawaii Medical Service Association if they report difficulty in accessing Kaiser mental and behavioral health services. No other plan changes or change in dependents will be permitted.

Several Kaiser patients, Kaiser therapists and a representative from HMSA testified during the meeting, which was open to the public, and expressed disappointment that Kaiser did not send a representative.

Kaiser Permanente mental health strike
Kaiser workers have been on strike for months. Courtesy: Hayley Showell/2022

In a press release, Kaiser spokeswoman Laura Lott said they “strongly believe that the bargaining table, and not a public forum, is the best place for substantive and productive labor negotiations.”

As the largest buyer of health insurance in the state, the EUTF covers about 68,000 active employees, 47,000 retirees and a combined total of 80,000 dependents, according to its website.

Normally, EUTF members who want to change insurance providers outside of the open enrollment window would be required to undergo a lengthy process by filing an appeal which would then be investigated by the board of trustees.

The now-expedited process will remain in effect for as long as Kaiser mental health workers are on strike or until June 30, if the strike is ongoing, according to a press release from the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents the striking workers from Kaiser.

In August, about 60 of Kaiser’s mental health providers went on strike against the HMO giant. After a few recent resignations, 52 are left, now on their 100th day of one of the longest strikes by mental health care workers in U.S. history.

Matt Artz, a NUHW representative, said that Kaiser is still demanding to eliminate pensions for newly hired therapists and to pay its therapists in Hawaii about 20% less than their counterparts in Northern California, who recently settled a contract with Kaiser.

Sal Rosselli, the NUHW president, said in the NUHW press release that they applaud the EUTF for taking action to protect its members who are struggling to access mental health care from Kaiser.

“This action will help thousands of Hawaii residents get potentially life-saving mental health care and send a strong message to Kaiser that it can’t get away with ignoring the mental health needs of its members in Hawaii,” Rosselli said.

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