In blow to Kaiser, 200,000 Hawaii public employees can now enroll in BCBS plans

Hawaii's largest purchaser of health insurance is allowing nearly 200,000 current and former county and state government employees to switch their health coverage from Kaiser Permanente to Hawaii Medical Service Association, the state's BCBS affiliate.

Mental health professionals employed at Kaiser's facilities in Hawaii have been on strike since late August, citing understaffing and long wait times for therapy sessions that surpass clinical guidelines.

On Dec. 6, the board that oversees the Hawaii Employer-Union Health Benefits Trust Fund (EUTF) voted unanimously to allow its members, along with their dependents, to switch health plans from Kaiser to HMSA if they report the inability to access timely mental healthcare from the Oakland, Calif.-based payer-provider, according to a news release shared with Becker's from the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents many Kaiser employees. 

Normally, EUTF members must file an appeal that is investigated and voted on by the board to switch plans. The new appeals process is expedited, requires no investigation and remains in effect until the strike is over or June 30, 2023, whichever is sooner.

According to the news release, Kaiser has 266,000 members in Hawaii and 52 psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, psychiatric nurses and chemical dependency counselors.

Kaiser declined to comment on the EUTF's decision to The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, but said in a prior statement that the union was making "unsubstantiated claims to try to create undue concern about access to mental health care services."

"Kaiser Permanente is deeply committed to meeting our patients' mental health and wellness needs, " Kaiser told the newspaper. "We believe that our integrated system — unique in Hawaii — provides a safety net for patients and allows us to use all available resources to best help members navigate to the care they need."

Kaiser cited the mental healthcare clinician shortage in the state and nationwide, and said it plans to hire 54 full-time therapists and support staff by the end of 2025. The organization said it's also contracted with 49 outside providers since August.

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