Not long ago, Kaiser Permanente held a special significance in both the Los Angeles and the national economy. As one of the largest and most profitable corporations in America, it was also one of the most enlightened when it came to how it treated its workers. Kaiser decided years ago that it made good business sense to have a positive working relationship with its union-represented employees. It then showed the rest of the world that compensating workers fairly could lead to enormous corporate growth and success, including becoming the largest HMO in the country.
Kaiser also understood at that time that treating workers fairly led to better patient outcomes. Until recently, Kaiser Executives believed that quality patient care depended upon recruiting the best frontline caregivers and retaining them for years, even decades. A committed, stable workforce composed of staff members who worked together as a team for years and who were intimately familiar with Kaiser’s processes and protocols, meant a smoother functioning healthcare delivery system with healthier, more gratified patients.
Today, due to the loyalty and commitment of its workers, Kaiser is “thriving,” to borrow from its ubiquitous ad campaign. In the first three months of this year, Kaiser made over $921 million in profits, or over $10 million per day. Since 2009, it has made $5 billion in profits. And even though the company is technically a non-profit charity, its executives have been rewarded handsomely for this success: Kaiser’s CEO, George Halvorson, has received $50 million in compensation since he was hired in 2003.
Unfortunately, however, the company has abandoned its philosophy of treating its workers with respect and allowing them to share in the company’s success. Kaiser Permanente has forgotten its earlier conviction that to be the healthcare provider of choice to patients it must be the healthcare employer of choice to caregivers.
At Kaiser’s flagship Southern California hospital, Registered Nurses are chronically understaffed, leading to unnecessary risks to patients. All over the state, social workers and mental health professionals have caseloads that force their patients to wait five and six weeks for follow-up appointments.
Kaiser workers in Southern California are currently engaged in bargaining for a new contract, and have engaged in two one-day strikes this year to advocate for higher staffing levels. Instead of agreeing to address the workers’ concerns over patient care at the bargaining table, however, Kaiser has responded to its employees by proposing major cuts to workers’ retirement and health benefits.
Kaiser’s insistence that caregivers sacrifice at a time of enormous profitability for the company and its executives is a radical departure from the company’s tradition of respecting the work of frontline caregivers, and from its philosophy that patients benefit from a stable workforce. Until recently, Kaiser enjoyed a reputation as a company that valued workers as well as corporate leaders. Today, Kaiser blends right in with its for-profit siblings on the Fortune 500 list, putting profits and outrageous executive compensation before patient care and respect for workers. In fact, Kaiser is behaving even more badly than most for-profit corporations, because unlike other companies that have cut jobs and worker benefits in response to the recession, Kaiser’s cost-cutting measures come at a time of record prosperity for the company.
The clergy community is extremely concerned about the ethics and morality of Kaiser’s decision to put profits over patient care. As most of our congregants are lifelong Kaiser Members, we have a responsibility to let Kaiser know that their current pattern of behavior is not reflective of the years of patient loyalty that Kaiser has enjoyed. It’s time for Kaiser Executives to look to their company’s past, remind themselves of their mission, and start listening to their caregivers.
Rev. William Monroe Campbell, Pastor, Mt. Gilead Baptist Church
Rev. Norman D. Copeland, Presiding Elder, Los Angeles District, AME Church
Leon Jenkins, President, NAACP Los Angeles Branch
Rev. Eric P. Lee, President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference-CA
Rev. Dr. Lewis E; Logan, Founder, Ruach Community Church
Rev. K.W. Tulloss, Pastor, Weller Street Missionary Baptist Church