What the Kaiser Permanente Strike Means for 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 walking out, 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.

What services are affected?

In an earlier statement, Kaiser emphasized that “a strike should not dissuade anyone from seeking necessary care.” But an array of services, such as lab tests, imaging and the filling of prescriptions, could be delayed because of the walkouts. Some clinics and pharmacies could be closed, and Kaiser said it would contact patients with any cancellations.

Kaiser’s hospitals are open. But some people seeking care could be directed to a hospital outside of Kaiser’s usual network if their doctors thought it was necessary. Kaiser’s hospital-based pharmacies also remain open, though the health system is urging people to use its mail order pharmacy if they can wait. Some patients may also be able to go to an outside retail pharmacy to fill a prescription.

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

Where did Kaiser workers walk out?

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

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

What are the main labor issues?

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

Kaiser’s union representatives said a lack of adequate staffing created unsafe conditions for patients, and argued that better wages would lure workers to close the gaps created by burnout and the exodus of employees in the last few years.

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

Kaiser had countered with minimum hourly wages of between $21 and $23 next year, increasing by a dollar a year. Raises would vary, it proposed, depending on locations.

How long will the strike last?

The strike started on Wednesday morning and could last through Saturday morning, with the exception of Virginia and the District of Columbia. The two sides were still in talks on Wednesday, so it’s possible that a settlement could be reached before then.

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