Posts Tagged ‘Pittsburg’

Early Permanente physicians: making do with makeshift facilities

posted on February 4, 2011

By Laura Thomas

Heritage correspondent

The first Kabat-Kaiser Institute was housed in this Washington, D.C. mansion.

In the early days of Permanente medicine, co-founder Dr. Sidney Garfield had to be nimble at getting the resources needed to take care of newly signed-up plan members. Working quickly to add new groups just after the war, often Garfield had to scramble to hire doctors and set up care facilities. Sometimes that meant occupying whatever building was available immediately – however seemingly unsuitable.

From the late 1940s into the 1950s, thousands of union workers in the Bay Area joined the Permanente plan and were able to get care at the new Kaiser Foundation Hospital on MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland. But the Bay Area was growing beyond the towns on the bay shore in the wake of the war’s great westward migration, and the medical plan had to grow with it.

Thus, when Henry Kaiser and Garfield took on members too far away to make an easy drive to central Oakland, the physicians moved into any building deemed workable. The health plan took over many wartime health facilities and small hospitals, but at different times, Permanente doctors and nurses saw patients in examining rooms fashioned out of the bedrooms of a motel and a once-stylish, turn-of-the-century hotel, the offices and storerooms of a San Francisco office building, the tight quarters above a modest dress shop and a ranch house on an historic estate.

First postwar facilities at Vallejo military-style hospital

Kaiser’s first opportunity to extend the health plan beyond the shipyards came right as the war ended.  Residents of the apartments and dormitories built for the workers that flooded Vallejo to work at Mare Island and the Benicia Arsenal had laid the groundwork in 1944 by lobbying for a government-sponsored hospital.

Vallejo military-style Permanente hospital in 1948

They succeeded in getting the Vallejo Community Hospital, which was built – military cantonment style – between a slough and a hillside on the north edge of town. Now that the war was ending, the barracks-like facility was slated for closure and the tenants re-grouped. They appealed to Permanente to come to Vallejo to care for up to 25,000 people living in eight housing projects.

In September 1945, the doctors moved into an infirmary downtown near the corner of Fourth and Maryland streets. The facility, which had been used by the U.S. Public Health Service during the war, was renamed the Permanente Medical Center. With only 60 beds, the makeshift hospital was temporary.

By 1947, Permanente re-opened the nearly new Vallejo Community Hospital and  – with the ample space it provided in several single story buildings spread over 30 acres – was also able to bring to Northern California the Kabat-Kaiser Institute, now called the Kaiser Foundation Rehabilitation Center. The original institute was established in Washington, D.C., at Henry Kaiser’s behest to help victims of neuromuscular disease, including his son, Henry J. Kaiser, Jr., who had multiple sclerosis (MS).

Later when a new Vallejo hospital was built in 1972, the campus continued to house the outpatient departments. In 2010 the newest Vallejo medical center was completed with 248 beds, a state-of-the-art rehabilitation wing with two gymnasia, and halls filled with natural sun light and the works of North Bay artists.

Next stop San Francisco

 The first doctors recruited by Garfield had no grandiose expectations. Most were committed to the ideal of health care for the masses, accepted the salary offered and the challenge of making do. It was all about “good humor and team spirit,” as long-time allergy supervisor Renee Owyang recalled in 1982 as she reflected on her early years in the first San Francisco clinic.

This former ambulance company building at 331 Pennsylvania St. in San Francisco was renamed Permanente Harbor Hospital in 1948.

In 1946, while the Alameda-Contra Costa County Medical Society was preparing an attack on Permanente medicine and its prepaid, group practice health model, shipyard workers at Hunters Point joined the health plan. To avoid attracting controversy in San Francisco, Garfield’s doctors took over a small clinic that had served the workers during the war on the third floor of an old lower Market Street office building and put the name of Dr. Cecil Cutting on the door.

In 1948, the Permanente Foundation acquired a 35-bed hospital in the Bayshore District of San Francisco near Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard. The old structure at 331 Pennsylvania St. had been previously owned by an ambulance company. Garfield had the picturesque building refurbished and re-named it Permanente Harbor Hospital.

For years before the Market Street clinic merged with the new hospital on Geary Boulevard, the San Francisco staff saw patients and even began an allergy department in a loft area that was served only by stairs and a freight elevator. “We often served as elevator operators for our allergy patients who were unable to climb the stairs,” Owyang said. She remembers putting out several buckets on rainy days to catch drops falling in the waiting area from the roof and enjoying the various tunes created by the rhythmic plops: “often we were tempted to rotate the buckets to get a new tune.”

Rambling ranch house turned into Walnut Creek clinic

This Arts&Crafts style home in Walnut Creek was converted to a Permanente medical clinic in 1952.

In 1952, Henry Kaiser, who lived in Lafayette, was eyeing the small, but bustling town of Walnut Creek as the place to locate a new hospital and found a 5-acre site along Newell Avenue. The owner was Edward Counter, soon to be mayor of the town, who lived there in an old, rambling Arts&Crafts style house he and his wife had turned into a cultural center. “It was kind of a collecting place for all the little (old) ladies of Walnut Creek, you know, and they had a tea room,” remembered the hospital’s administrator, Jack Chapman, in 1982.

Chapman also noted in an oral history that the price had been fixed at $75,000, but the ever impatient Kaiser was seen at the property. “He couldn’t wait, you know, he stomped around here one night and somebody saw him and automatically it went up 25,000 bucks.”

The house that had once been surrounded by orchards was turned into a clinic, with an older home at the back becoming the housekeeping department and a swimming pool turned into a morgue, Chapman recalled. When the clinic opened, he was joined by a gardener, to take care of the grounds, a nurse, receptionist and three doctors. By the end of 1953, a new clinic and hospital had been built on the property and 35,000 people trooped through it during an open house that lasted two weeks.

And not a minute too soon, for in the same month (September), Local 1440 of the steelworkers union up the road in Pittsburg voted to join Kaiser –  after a bitter campaign by local doctors designed to dissuade them — and suddenly 10,000 more people became Permanente members. “They demanded then that we open a clinic,” Chapman said.

A motel on Los Medanos Street behind Pittsburg Post-Dispatch building was purchased and used for nine years until a larger clinic was built in Antioch. “So we bought this funny little building that was about to be a motel,” said Dr. Wallace Cook in 1982 “and turned each motel room into an office. It had a courtyard so you peeled off and went to surgery or medicine or wherever, depending on which motel room your doctor was in.”

Southern California coastal group finds space above a dress shop and in posh hotel

San Pedro Permanente medical offices expanded to Pacific Avenue over a dress shop in 1951.

In 1950 Ira “Buck” Wallin MD hurriedly set up shop in a medical office in downtown San Pedro when longshoremen union members joined the health plan. The interim clinic was pulled together in two weeks with Harry Bridges, leader of the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s union, breathing down Garfield’s neck.  

There were 3,000 new members to handle and, within seven months, 30,000 retails clerks were added to the Southern California membership rolls, many living in the San Pedro-Long Beach communities. Busting at the seams, the plan found space for several more doctors and the administrative offices above a dress shop on South Pacific Avenue.

By 1954, a new clinic was opened in a large Victorian house on Atlantic Avenue in Long Beach, which had room for five internists, including a pediatrician, and had an X-ray department, but no laboratory. It became popular immediately and another site was opened in the turn-of-the-century Kennebec Hotel, which had been a center of action in Long Beach’s heyday as a beach resort.

Remodeled in 1950, the guest rooms were equipped with toilets and showers and accommodated surgery, internal medicine OB/Gyn, pediatrics and physical therapy.

The old Kennebec Hotel, across from The Pike amusement park, was used as a Permanente Long Beach clinic in the early 1950s.

“It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter but had a good view of The Pike,” said staffer Hannah Wilson. The Pike, the mile-long boardwalk and amusement park that was still roaring in the 1950s featured such attractions as a large indoor swimming pool, carousel, rollercoaster and 10-cent rides for children on Wednesdays.

In 1992, the Long Beach clinic relocated a fourth time to its present site on the Pacific Coast Highway, just before the traffic circle. On most days, members and staff have a clear view of the city’s high rise buildings and the Walter Pyramid at California State University, Long Beach.

The clinic is modern and efficient, but no doubt it has little of the charm of those earlier facilities, none of the pink bordello walls, warm ocean breezes or shrieks of delighted children, that the staff and doctors remember from the old Kennebec.

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Permanente embraces its partnership with labor

posted on December 31, 2010

By Laura Thomas

Henry J. Kaiser and Sidney R. Garfield, MD, survey the site for the Walnut Creek Medical Center, completed in 1953

Throughout its history, Kaiser Permanente has relied on the “can-do spirit” of its dedicated workers and on the support of organized labor to keep the prepaid health plan strong.

Coming out of World War II, the medical plan had proven its viability in caring for a large shipyard workforce, but with the end of shipbuilding contracts, Henry Kaiser and Permanente founder and medical director Dr. Sidney Garfield had a big problem. Where were the large numbers of new members going to come from?

Kaiser, a friend of labor, attracted workers’ unions whose leaders understood the power of prepaid health care and wanted it for the welfare of their workers. Bay Area workers – from Oakland city employees, who were the first to sign up, to union typographers, street car drivers and carpenters – embraced the Permanente Health Plan with its emphasis on preventive medicine.

In 1950, Harry Bridges brought the 6,000-member International Longshoremen and Warehousemen Union (ILWU) into Kaiser Permanente, bringing the total West Coast membership, including Los Angeles, to almost 160,000.  In 1951, the Retail Clerks union added 30,000 to the membership rolls in Los Angeles.

Opposition tries to squelch KP

Despite this success, Kaiser and Garfield often faced rear guard actions from private practice doctors who felt threatened by group practice medicine. In 1953 when KP opened a new hospital in Walnut Creek and sought the health plan contract with workers in the U.S. Steel plant in Pittsburg, California, all hell broke loose in that small town along the Carquinez Strait.

A family visits the new KP Walnut Creek facility completed in 1953

Before Kaiser Permanente came along, the steelworkers union had both a national hospitalization plan and a local supplementary health plan with local private practice doctors. The workers were not satisfied with the current health plan and were complaining that providers charged too much and were lackadaisical about responding to emergencies and requests for house calls.

For their part, the Pittsburg area doctors argued that inflation required rates to rise and disputed the idea that service to members was lax.

Kaiser Permanente already provided care to steelworkers at the South San Francisco Bethlehem Steel plant and was prepared to expand services to the Pittsburg area. The beginning of KP’s negotiations with the Steelworkers Local 1440 in Pittsburg raised the hackles of the 41 private practice doctors already established in the area.

These doctors, all members of the East Contra Costa branch of the Alameda-Contra Costa Medical Association, quickly devised a new and better plan to offer the union, including 24-hour emergency service and a cap on fees.

Offer steelworkers couldn’t refuse

Joseph Garbarino, in his 1960 study of the Pittsburg conflict for the University of California, reported that the union bargainers welcomed Kaiser Permanente because of its offer to provide comprehensive care for a specific price for a specified period of time. This arrangement was attractive to the local union whose leadership had never before been able to negotiate such a favorable deal with their private practice providers.

The first Pittsburg clinic was in an old motel

The Pittsburg area doctors were furious and immediately mounted a campaign to discredit the Kaiser Permanente agreement.  The doctors appealed to the steelworkers to reject the decision of their insurance committee and place the KP plan and the private doctors’ revised offer side by side for a vote of the full membership.

Fred Pellegrin, a Kaiser Permanente physician in the new Walnut Creek facility, remembers a rally where the local doctors “begged us not to go to Pittsburg … People stood up, yelling at us, called us Communists. It was a real shouting match.”

Using full-page newspaper ads, handbills and direct mail, the fee-for-service doctors bombarded the community with arguments supporting their plan and implied that the national Steelworker union officials were investigating the local’s decision.

The union answered the doctors’ charges in its newsletter and then agreed to a Sept. 3 (1953) election. Both sides agreed to a break in hostilities for the month of August. The agreement called for the doctors to stop their campaign and for the union leaders to remain neutral on the election.

The truce ended just days before the election when the union distributed voting packets with both health plan proposals, and included a leaflet encouraging members to favor the Kaiser Permanente plan. Enraged private practice doctors took to the battlements again, issuing a more detailed plan explanation and blasting the union in a full-page newspaper ad.

The doctors hired a truck with a loud speaker that cruised through workers’ neighborhoods broadcasting their opposition to Kaiser Permanente. They enlisted supporters, including Pittsburg doctors’ wives, to distribute literature in the steel company parking lot. Plan B was to drop leaflets from the air if solicitors were barred from the plant. According to news reports, tensions rose and the sheriff’s department was called, but no clashes occurred.

Victory of KP health plan

The Pittsburg medical establishment’s effort failed as steelworkers voted 2,182 to 440 to retain the Kaiser Permanente plan. For KP, this was a victory, but more struggles related to organized labor were yet to come.

Financial troubles in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in labor issues that threatened to stunt the health plan’s progress. Happily, those years of turmoil spawned Kaiser Permanente’s landmark Labor Management Partnership (LMP), which forged a cooperative relationship between KP’s 26 unions and the health plan leadership. The partnership fosters a respectful collaboration to improve health care for members and to create a positive work environment.

Kaiser Permanente unions had a big role in bringing about that partnership. In the midst of hostile bargaining in 1995, union leaders realized the labor disputes could damage the future of the health plan. Kathy Schmidt, a member of the bargaining team from Oregon, recalled, “We realized: here is the most unionized system in the country. Why don’t we try to help them? We learned more about trying to have a Partnership.”

Then-Kaiser Permanente CEO David Lawrence reached back across the abyss and agreed. “What I remember thinking about at that meeting was: We’ve got nothing to lose by being forthcoming about what I believed needed to happen …about the kind of collaboration that I think is required to deliver modern medical care in all of its complexity,” he told Harvard University researchers in 2002.

Today, scholars at both Harvard’s School of Government and Stanford University’s School of Business are following the progress of the LMP and consider it a prime example of labor and management cooperation. Its continued success will contribute to the realization of KP’s goal of being the model for health care delivery in the United States.

Read more about the Labor Management Partnership.

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