By Ginny McPartland
Kaiser Permanente’s post-World War II public health plan was but an embryo in 1950 when famed labor leader Harry Bridges asked Dr. Sidney Garfield to provide medical care for West Coast longshoremen. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) had just adopted a health and welfare plan for its members, and Permanente’s prepaid health coverage fit Bridges’ vision.
The health plan, then called Permanente, already had services in the San Francisco Bay area, so covering the six or seven thousand Northern California dock workers was no problem. But Permanente’s only presence in Southern California was at the Fontana Steel Plant, 70 miles inland from the Los Angeles harbor area where the roughly 3,000 longshoremen lived.
Garfield didn’t have to ponder Bridges’ offer for long. The struggling health plan needed members – desperately. After saying “yes!” to Bridges, Garfield flew into action. He hired a physician to run the longshoremen clinic, found a suitable building in the Port of Los Angeles town of San Pedro and opened for business in about two weeks.
Today, Kaiser Permanente’s South Bay service area, boasts about 190,000 members, a 255-bed medical center, and medical offices in Long Beach, Torrance, Harbor City, Lomita, Carson, and Gardena. The KP South Bay community is celebrating its 60 years of history on Wednesday, June 23, in Harbor City.
It’s been a rough ride
The Harbor area health plan’s six decades of existence can be characterized as a roller coaster ride with its ups, downs, and unexpected turns. The years have brought growth, at times unmanageable, stopgap solutions to facility needs, the San Pedro murder of a popular doctor, and a fire that disrupted operations for a year – not all roses and sunshine.
In the beginning, and for many years, the doctors made house calls and took turns sleeping overnight in a blood draw room in the clinic. They were at the beck and call of the longshoremen and their families. Over the first five years, the ILWU became steadily more impatient with the health plan for delaying construction of a sorely needed Harbor area medical center.
Meanwhile, the group had expanded to Long Beach – first to an old house and then to the old posh Kennebec Hotel across from the Pike, a popular amusement park in Long Beach. The health plan also opened a Los Angeles clinic and then a hospital on Sunset Boulevard. From 1953 when the Sunset Hospital opened until the Harbor City hospital was built in 1957, patients were shuttled to Los Angeles for hospital care.
After a tussle with the ILWU that threatened the loss of the group, Sidney Garfield and Buck Wallin got the funding to build the Harbor City medical center. The first medical office building, called Parkview, was opened adjacent to the hospital in 1958.
South Bay no stranger to innovation
The South Bay/Harbor City movers and shakers contributed more than their share of innovative ideas over the years. Some examples:
- In 1964, Harry Shragg, who later became area medical director, was the first in Southern California Kaiser Permanente to perform outpatient surgery, a practice that would become prevalent for its economy and medical soundness.
- In 1964-65, Buck Wallin and Chief of Medicine William Fawell pursued the idea of discharging patients sooner and providing follow-up medical care in their homes. When Medicare came along in 1965, suddenly (home health care) became one of the ‘in’ things to do.
- In the early 1970s, Harry Shragg, Internist Jay Belsky, and Medical Group Administrator Ed Bunting worked together to develop a new exam room layout that would leave more room for the patient and the examination table. “It was such a big success that it was adopted and became standard for all of Southern California, Bunting said.
The good, the bad and the ugly
- In 1967, Dr. Shragg saw the opportunity to help disadvantaged Harbor City people through a local program funded by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. Kaiser Permanente used its community service funds to provide medical care for 100 participant families.
- In 1960, Leon Quattlebaum, a well-liked and respected 36-year-old Harbor City OB-GYN, was killed in San Pedro by a local tough who, unprovoked, punched “Q” in the jaw, knocking him to the cement floor and fracturing his skull. The prosecutor at the murder trial said the only reason for the killing was the murderer’s “malignancy of heart.”
- In November of 1973, a night fire of unknown origin collapsed the three-story Parkview engineering tower and threatened to destroy Harbor City’s medical records and appointments data. The medical offices and appointment center were up and running again in about a week, said MGA Ed Bunting. But it took about a year to rebuild the burned out section at the center and make the complex whole again.