Kaiser Permanente

Kaiser Permanente is an integrated managed care consortium, based in Oakland, California, United States, founded in 1945 by industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and physician Sidney Garfield. Kaiser Permanente is made up of three distinct groups of entities: the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and its regional operating subsidiaries; Kaiser Foundation Hospitals; and the autonomous regional Permanente Medical Groups. As of 2006, Kaiser Permanente operates in nine states and the District of Columbia, and is the largest managed care organization in the United States.

Kaiser Permanente has 8.9 million health plan members, 167,300 employees, 14,600 physicians, 37 medical centers, and 611 medical offices. In its most recently reported year, the non-profit Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals entities reported a combined $1.6 billion in net income on $47.9 billion in operating revenues.Each independent Permanente Medical Group operates as a separate for-profit partnership or professional corporation in its individual territory, and while none publicly report their financial results, each is primarily funded by reimbursements from its respective regional Kaiser Foundation Health Plan entity.

National structure

The two types of organizations which make up each regional entity are:


  • Kaiser Foundation Health Plans (KFHP) work with employers, employees, and individual members to offer prepaid health plans and insurance. The health plans are not-for-profit and provide infrastructure for and invest in Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and provide a tax-exempt shelter for the for-profit medical groups.
  • Permanente Medical Groups are physician-owned organizations, which provide and arrange for medical care for Kaiser Foundation Health Plan members in each respective region. The medical groups are for-profit partnerships or professional corporations and receive nearly all of their funding from Kaiser Foundation Health Plans. The first medical group, The Permanente Medical Group, formed in 1948 in Northern California.

In addition, Kaiser Foundation Hospitals operates medical centers in California, Oregon and Hawaii, and outpatient facilities in the remaining Kaiser Permanente regions. The hospital foundations are not-for-profit and rely on the Kaiser Foundation Health Plans for funding. They also provide infrastructure and facilities that benefit the for-profit medical groups.

Early years

Though it has since become the largest organization of its kind, Kaiser was not the first HMO. In its modern form, the HMO combines a large group practice, contracts with employers to care for a group of workers, and a prepayment plan for both hospitals and group practices. The first "contract doctor" system in the West was orchestrated by Dr. Raymond G. Taylor, who created a temporary healthcare system from 1908 to 1912 on behalf of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works to care for the 10,000 workers on the Los Angeles Aqueduct project. The first group prepayment plans appeared in 1929 in response to the onset of the Great Depression. That year, Baylor University started a hospital prepayment plan, the first of several plans which would ultimately join together to become the Blue Cross insurance network. In Oklahoma, Dr. Michael Shadid recruited local farmers around Elk City, Oklahoma into a small consumer healthcare cooperative. And in Los Angeles, Dr. Donald Ross and Dr. H. Clifford Loos founded the Ross-Loos Clinic to care for City of Los Angeles public utilities workers.

The history of Kaiser Permanente dates to 1933 and a tiny hospital in the town of Desert Center, California. At that time, Kaiser and several other large construction contractors had formed an insurance consortium called Industrial Indemnity to meet their workers' compensation obligations. Dr. Sidney Garfield had just finished his residency at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center at a time when jobs were scarce; fortunately, he was able to secure a contract with Industrial Indemnity to care for 5,000 construction workers building the Colorado River Aqueduct in the Mojave Desert. Soon enough, Garfield's new hospital was in a precarious financial state (with mounting debt and the staff of three going unpaid), due in part to Garfield's desire to treat all patients regardless of ability to pay, as well as his insistence on equipping the hospital adequately so that critically injured patients could be stabilized for the long journey to full-service hospitals in Los Angeles.

However, Garfield won over two Industrial Indemnity executives, Harold Hatch and Alonzo B. Ordway. It was Hatch who proposed to Garfield the specific solution that would lead to the creation of Kaiser Permanente: Industrial Indemnity would prepay 17.5% of
premiums, or $1.50 per worker per month, to cover work-related injuries, while the workers would each contribute five cents per day to cover non-work-related injuries. Later, Garfield also credited Ordway with coming up with the general idea of prepayment for industrial healthcare. Garfield also later explained that he did not know much at the time about other similar health plans except for Ross-Loos.

Hatch's solution enabled Garfield to bring his budget back into the positive, and to experiment with providing a broader range of services to the workers besides pure emergency care. By the time work on the aqueduct concluded and the project was wrapped up, Garfield had paid off all his debts, was supervising ten physicians at three hospitals, and controlled a financial reserve of $150,000.

Garfield returned to Los Angeles for further study at County-USC with the intent of entering private practice. However, in March 1938, Consolidated Industries (a consortium led by the Kaiser Company) initiated work on a contract for the upper half of the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state, and took over responsibility for the thousands of workers who had worked for a different construction consortium on the first half of the dam. Edgar Kaiser, Henry's son, was in charge of the project. To smooth over relations with the workers (who had been treated poorly by their earlier employer), Hatch and Ordway persuaded Edgar to meet with Garfield, and in turn Edgar persuaded Garfield to tour the Grand Coulee site. Garfield subsequently agreed to reproduce at Grand Coulee Dam what he had done on the Colorado River Aqueduct project. He immediately spent $100,000 on renovating the decrepit Mason City Hospital and hired seven physicians.

Unlike the workers on Garfield's first project, many workers at Grand Coulee Dam had brought dependents with them. The unions soon forced the Kaiser Company to expand its plan to cover dependents, which resulted in a dramatic shift from industrial medicine into family practice and enabled Garfield to formulate some of the basic principles of Kaiser Permanente. It was also during this time that Henry Kaiser personally became acquainted with Garfield and forged a friendship which lasted until Kaiser's death.

World War

Kaiser Field Hospital in Richmond, California. Closed since 1995

In 1939, the Kaiser Company began work on several huge shipbuilding contracts in Oakland, and by the end of 1941 would control four major shipyards on the West Coast. During 1940, the expansion of the American defense-industrial complex in preparation for entrance into World War II resulted in a massive increase in the number of employees at the Richmond shipyard. In January 1941, Henry Kaiser asked Garfield to set up an insurance plan for the Richmond workers (this was merely contract negotiation with insurance companies), and a year later Kaiser asked Garfield to duplicate at Richmond what he had done at Desert Center and Mason City. Unlike the two other projects, the resulting entity lived on after the construction project that gave birth to it, and it is the direct ancestor of today's Kaiser Permanente.

On March 1, 1942, Sidney R. Garfield & Associates opened its offices in Oakland to provide care to 20,000 workers, followed by the opening of the Permanente Health Plan on June 1. From the beginning, Kaiser Permanente strongly supported preventive medicine and attempted to educate its members about maintaining their own health.

In July, the Permanente Foundation formed to operate Northern California hospitals that would be linked to the outpatient health plans, followed shortly thereafter by the creation of Northern Permanente Foundation for Oregon and Washington and Southern Permanente Foundation for California. The name Permanente came from Permanente Creek, which flowed past Henry Kaiser's first cement plant on Black Mountain in Cupertino, California. Kaiser's first wife, Bess Fosburgh, liked the name. The first Permanente Hospital opened in Oakland on August 1, 1942. Three weeks later, the Richmond Field Hospital opened, and the Northern Permanente Hospital opened two weeks later to serve workers at the Kaiser shipyard in Vancouver, Washington. In 1944, Kaiser decided to continue the program after the war and to open it up to the general public.

Meanwhile, during the war years, the American Medical Association (AMA) (which opposed managed care organizations from their very beginning) tried to defuse demand for managed care by promoting the rapid expansion of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield preferred provider organization networks.

Courage to Heal, a novel by KP Historical Society President, Paul Bernstein, MD, is based on the story of Garfield's life, his struggles with the AMA, and the origins of Kaiser Permanente.