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What it might mean for patients if 75,000 Kaiser Permanente workers go on strike

75,000 Kaiser workers to strike starting Wednesday
75,000 Kaiser workers to strike starting Wednesday 00:38

As a potential strike looms, Kaiser Permanente, one of the United States' largest not-for-profit medical systems, says it has contingency plans in place so it can continue to provide safe, high-quality care for its 12.7 million members and patients.

The potential strike — which would be the largest health care strike in American history — involves more than 75,000 workers at locations across the country. If the workers unions and the health care system can't reach an agreement, many workers will walk off the job from early Wednesday through early Friday, with plans to strike for a longer period in November if necessary.

A walkout would not leave the Oakland, California-based health-care system completely without employees. As of June, Kaiser Permanente employs more than 281,000 nurses, technicians, administrative and clerical workers, as well as nearly 24,000 doctors at its 39 hospitals and 622 medical offices. About 60% of staffers would still be working in the event of a strike, according to the organization.

But the eight unions that are threatening to strike represent people who are crucial to patient care, including EMTs, nurses, respiratory therapists and support staff.

During a much smaller strike in 2022 that involved Kaiser's mental health care workers, patients calling to make appointments reported long hold times, and some appointments were canceled.

The system says some "non-urgent" appointments and procedures may have to be postponed, but it will contact patients in advance if so.

Although this walkout would be the first national strike effort at Kaiser Permanente, the health system said that no patients in Georgia, Hawaii or Washington would be affected, and operations would continue as usual in those states.

In Virginia and the District of Columbia, optometrists and pharmacists are the only workers preparing to strike.

But the effects for patients in Colorado, Oregon and California "could be more substantial," a Kaiser spokesperson said.

"We have detailed continuity plans in place in all of these markets that include the use of non-represented and management staff along with contingency workers. In addition, all our physicians will be available," the spokesperson said.

Working with fewer employees wouldn't be easy, according to John August, director of health care labor relations at Cornell University and former executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions.

"Managers are still going to be there. The doctors are still going to be there. From the outside looking in, it's easy to say that it's not going to be that disruptive," he said. "The reality is, it's extremely disruptive."

As with many health care systems in the US, Kaiser Permanente has been operating short on staff ever since the Covid-19 pandemic began, it said. Inadequate staffing is one of the issues workers are negotiating.

Kaiser Permanente says it has been working to bulk up staffing. It set a goal of hiring 10,000 additional workers by the end of the year and should reach that mark this month, it said. About 29,000 staffers were hired in 2022 and an additional 22,000 this year.

Studies that have looked at the effects of walkouts on patient care have found that they're disruptive but have only a marginal impact, if any, on patient outcomes.

One analysis that looked at longer strikes suggested that they had little impact on patient morbidity. Another 2022 analysis of several studies involving 1.8 million patients globally found no clear negative effects on patient mortality.

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