25 years ago: Georgia native sows seeds of success at home

posted on October 30, 2010

Harper Gaston, MD

By Ginny McPartland

For Harper Gaston, MD, going to Atlanta 25 years ago to start Kaiser Permanente in Georgia was much like going home. A Georgia native and alumnus of Emory University, Gaston was at first reluctant. He had been practicing internal medicine and cardiology at the Hayward Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Northern California for 23 years and had just been elected physician-in-chief.

“I told them: I am planning on retiring to Georgia, but my intent is to serve out my term, about four more years in California,” Gaston said in an interview with Historian Steve Gilford after his retirement in 1993.

However, the pressure to help establish a Georgia Region for Kaiser Permanente was intense. In 1985, Atlanta was the fastest growing city in the U.S. and was rated as the best place to do business in a survey of 400 CEOs. Atlanta was second only to Los Angeles in employer growth. Kaiser Permanente, with a presence in California, Oregon, Hawaii and the Midwest, was anxious to bring its brand of community-based prepaid health care to Atlanta, the hub of the Southeast.

Eventually convinced Atlanta was a good move, Gaston packed up with his wife, Anne Gaston, a Hayward KP pediatrician, and went to Georgia in the summer of 1985. Anne Gaston was also going home; she had come to Northern California from Georgia with her husband to join KP in 1961.
Gaston also took along two key people to start the health care program: Edgar T. Carlson of the Ohio Permanente Region who became Georgia regional manager; and Margaret Jordan, RN, a quality leader in Oakland, as Georgia health plan manager. Ron Hostettler, also from Ohio, came as assistant health plan manager and marketing director; John Blankenship came from Southern California Region as chief financial officer.

Renewing friendships

When Gaston hit the ground in Atlanta, he knew just what to do. He renewed his community contacts and got involved with Emory University, the Medical Association of Georgia, and other local physician organizations. “Knowing the leadership of these places and refurbishing old contacts was a great help. I think you can go home again.”

Louis Sullivan, MD

Gaston also picked several prominent members of the Atlanta community – banker John W. McIntyre; physician Louis Wade Sullivan, dean and director of the Morehouse College of Medicine (later to be appointed secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services); and community leader Laura Jones Hardman – to sit on the KP Georgia board of directors. Bruce Sams, MD, a native Georgian and executive director of the Northern California Permanente Medical Group, was also a key figure on the Georgia board.

As founding medical director, Gaston personally called on many of Atlanta’s physicians in their offices during 1985, the start-up year. He selected the best doctors in all parts of the metro Atlanta, including the black community, and invited them to join the Southeast Permanente Medical Group (TSPMG) to care for KP members. He negotiated contracts with three Atlanta area hospitals for KP inpatient care. “They were exactly the best hospitals in Atlanta, no question about it,” he said.

Early acceptance and rapid growth

KP Georgia’s earliest members were seen starting in October of 1985 at Northlake Medical Office in DeKalb County. Three months later, the Cumberland office was opened and then, another facility was opened near Southwest Community Hospital in the black community. The new region ended the year with 265 members, 25 health plan employees and seven TSPMG employees. Acquiring financially ailing Maxicare and securing the state of Georgia employee account in 1988, the region grew to 100,000 members by 1989.

Georgia KP had set up 10 medical facilities by the end of the 1990s and added another seven in the 2000s. This year, development has accelerated with four new buildings already launched and three more planned. Today, 280 Georgia region physicians and 2,200 staff members care for about a quarter of a million members in 20-plus facilities throughout the 28-county Atlanta metro area.

Emphasis on quality care

From the beginning, Gaston was intent on high quality for Georgia KP members. His efforts paid off.  In 1995, Georgia Kaiser Permanente was one of two health plans in Atlanta to earn the National Committee on Quality Assurance (NCQA) three-year accreditation. In 1998, Newsweek and US News and World Report rated Kaiser Permanente the No. 1 health plan in Georgia. The American Medical Group Association gave the Southeast Permanente Medical Group (TSPMG) its Preeminence Award in 2002.

More accolades were to follow:

  • Special NCQA recognition in 2006 for putting into place programs to solve health disparities for African Americans, Latinos and Asians
  • Atlanta Magazine’s 2008 award to KP as a “Best Place to Work”
  • J.D. Power’s ranking of Georgia KP as highest in customer satisfaction among health plans in the South Atlantic region, 2008
  • US News and World Report top-rated health plan in Georgia, 2008
  • 2010: the NCQA announced in October that KP Georgia has the highest breast cancer screening rate in the country, 91 percent, compared to a 71 percent national average.

Community service a given for KP

Shortly after opening in Georgia, Kaiser Permanente looked for opportunities to offer help to the community. In 1986, Permanente physicians agreed to reinstate recently discontinued hearing and vision screening for financially strapped area schools. Physicians screened 3,600 children in 17 DeKalb County elementary schools and two City of Decatur schools.

Over the years, the scale has only gotten bigger. Georgia region has sponsored the huge, area-wide Kaiser Permanente Corporate Run/Walk and Fitness Program since 2004. In 2005, the Atlanta American Red Cross named KP Georgia the Philanthropist of the Year for its sponsorship of the annual CPR Saturday program. For its 20th anniversary in 2005, KP Georgia gave $1 million to the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.

To wrap up its quarter of a century, Georgia KP topped itself with a $2.5 million donation for the development of the Eastside section of the Atlanta Beltline trail. The corridor of parks, trails and passenger rail service takes advantage of an old 22-mile railroad right-of-way that loops around the city. KP Georgia has also committed to a $5 million donation to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for a new hospital.

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