How the Kaiser Permanente strike could affect patients


Tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente workers, including pharmacists, lab technicians, therapists and housekeepers, went on strike Wednesday morning. Kaiser patients in California, Colorado, Oregon, Virginia and Washington state, where Kaiser health care workers are leaving, will be affected.

Kaiser, whose health plans cover nearly 13 million people through a network of hospitals and clinics, says its hospitals and emergency departments remain open. But patients should expect delays in scheduling appointments and procedures that are not considered urgent could be postponed. Doctors and many nurses are not on strike.

In an earlier statement, Kaiser emphasized that “a strike should not deter anyone from seeking necessary care.” But a number of services, such as lab tests, imaging and prescription dispensing, could be delayed due to the strikes. Some clinics and pharmacies could close and Kaiser said he would contact patients in case of cancellations.

Kaiser hospitals are open. But some people seeking care could be referred to a hospital outside Kaiser’s regular network if their doctors deem it necessary. Kaiser hospital pharmacies also remain open, although the health system encourages people to use its mail-order pharmacy if they can wait. Some patients may also go to an outside retail pharmacy to obtain a prescription.

Patients may feel the effects of the strike in other ways: Hospital rooms may be cleaned less frequently, and outside workers Kaiser has brought in to help may not be as familiar with the way a facility works.

Kaiser Permanente operates in eight states and the District of Columbia, with 39 hospitals and more than 600 physician offices. Most of the striking workers are in California, where the health system is based. The system operates nearly all of the state’s hospitals, as well as more than 500 medical buildings there.

There are no strikes in Georgia, Maryland and Hawaii, according to Kaiser officials, and few strikes occurred in Washington state. In Virginia and the District of Columbia, only pharmacists and optometrists participated Wednesday, and they were expected to return to work after a day.

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated staffing shortages that even Kaiser officials acknowledge still plague hospitals and other medical centers across the country. By many accounts, patients and workers have had to deal with fewer nurses, aides and support staff members.

Kaiser union representatives said a lack of adequate staffing created unsafe conditions for patients and argued that better wages would entice workers to close gaps created by employee burnout and exodus in recent years.

Under a proposed four-year contract, the union had sought a minimum wage of $25 an hour and additional increases over the next few years.

Kaiser had responded with minimum hourly wages of between $21 and $23 next year, rising by a dollar a year. The increases would vary, he proposed, depending on locations.

The strike began Wednesday morning and could last until Saturday morning, except in Virginia and the District of Columbia. The two sides were still in talks Wednesday, so it’s possible a deal could be reached before then.

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