Kaiser Permanente member cards – paper, plastic, or pixels?

posted on February 3, 2016

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Permanente Health Plan card, 1942

Permanente Health Plan card, Kaiser Richmond shipyards, 1942

Every Kaiser Permanente member receives an ID card. It looks like a credit card, with embossed lettering and a magnetic strip on the back, and is the first thing asked for when arriving at a Kaiser Permanente facility. Just last year, Kaiser Permanente began launching a “digital membership card” that lives on a smartphone to supplement the prosaic wallet card.

But even the physical cards have changed over time. And the Kaiser Permanente heritage archives would like your help in better understanding their evolution.

KP Member card, NW region, 1961 [circa]; [KPNW discrete collection II]
Northwest member card, circa 1961.

When the Health Plan was first set up to serve the World War II workers in the West coast Kaiser shipyards and Fontana (Calif.) steel mill, employees were issued identification cards as members of the 50-cent-a-week non-industrial health plan. A shipyard newspaper article advised:

Flash your identification card when you go to Permanente Field Hospital: it’ll save you time. These I.D. cards are given Health Plan members when they first go to the hospital, and have the patient’s chart number on them. On subsequent trips to the hospital, treatment will be stepped up if a person can just show his card, speed the location of his record in the chart room.

Reporter 1962-07

New member cards, article in July 1962 Reporter

Later the health plan was extended to family members in 1943 (Portland, Ore., area) and 1945 (Richmond, Calif.). Still a benefit of employment, the plan identification was through the primary working adult. An article in the Richmond shipyard newspaper Fore ‘n’ Aft noted:

All members of the Family Health Plan have been asked to have the badge number and yard number of family member at hand when applying for treatment at Permanente hospitals. The director of the family plan, Dr. Kuh, asks that badge number be handy in order to forestall delays in treatment. All records on patients are kept in the order of badge numbers under the yard in which the family member works. When the wife or child of a worker who has signed for the family plan shows up at the hospital without this information delay results while the personnel files are checked at the yard.

Sample new plastic KP membership card, NW region, Pulse 1969-03

Sample new plastic Northwest membership card, March 1969

When the war ended and the plan was opened to the general public in 1945, surely some form of ID card was issued – but we don’t have any examples.

Our earliest card comes from around 1961, a simple little paper ID with name, file number coverage, group number and date enrolled. But in 1969 credit card technology took over, and for the first time cards could be mechanically processed. The Pulse, a monthly publication by and for employees of the Kaiser Foundation Medical Care Program in Oregon, published this article March 1969:

The Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Oregon announces an important new step which will speed the handling of medical records and make things easier for everyone.

Within the next 30 days all subscribers and enrolled family members will be mailed new plastic identification cards. The new cards are imprinted in raised letters and numbers with name and chart number together with other identifying information necessary for the medical record.

Using the plastic card, which looks like a charge plate or credit card, this information can be quickly and easily imprinted on any record going into the permanent medical chart. It will save time and will mean that the patient will not have to answer the same questions each time a visit is made to a Kaiser facility. All around, it will make for faster, more efficient service.

KPNW member card, original plastic, scan from photo; 1980 [circa]

Northwest member card, original plastic, scan from photo; circa 1980

By 1980 the cards sported the Kaiser Permanente logo, but were otherwise pretty much the same. At some point a magnetic strip appeared on the back, and the coverage details were dropped. It turned out that when Plan member groups changed benefits, Kaiser Permanente ended up having to reissue thousands of cards, especially during Open Enrollment.

If any readers have vintage member cards we could include in our archives, drop us an email and we can discuss details. We certainly don’t want you to expose personal health information!


1942 member card image courtesy the J. Porter Shaw Library of San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, special thanks to Steve Gilford.

Short link to this article: http://k-p.li/1R2xWYt


One Response to “Kaiser Permanente member cards – paper, plastic, or pixels?”

  1. Jessicah Wager says:

    What a cool post I love to see how the design has evolved over time.

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