January 26, 2018

A ‘great, big social idea’

Historian Kevin Starr looks back on how Kaiser Permanente got started.

Kaiser Richmond shipyard voluntary health plan recruitment poster, 1942.

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

Kaiser Richmond shipyard voluntary health plan recruitment poster, 1942

The Kaiser Permanente health plan was the “great, big social idea” to come out of World War II and was core to California’s developing concept of community.

That was the theme of a talk at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club in 2002 by Kevin Starr, the beloved San Francisco-born, seventh-generation Californian who served as State Librarian from 1994 to 2004 and was widely known as a historian and chronicler of California lore.

Starr, who died last year at age 76, gave his Commonwealth Club talk just before the release of his 2002 book, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950, part of his extensive history of California series. His talk was recently transcribed.

Robbie Pearl, MD — then the executive director of The Permanente Medical Group — introduced Starr, noting, “Mr. Kaiser and Dr. Garfield established Kaiser Permanente. Their founding principles, which remain unaltered in Kaiser Permanente today, include a commitment to physician autonomy for clinical decision making… a focus on disease prevention, and a belief that patients get better care when doctors, hospitals and health plans work collaboratively.”

Starr offered some insights into the unique role these founders played during World War II and its aftermath. He discussed Henry J. Kaiser’s dream of a post-World War II era in which home-front social features such as day care and medical care would be available to all Americans. Starr also pointed out that “The war was terrible but it brought us together in extraordinary ways.”

Starr highlighted Kaiser Permanente’s humble beginnings in the shipyards. He talked about how the organization is connected to the “idea of community” and reflects the importance of “working together.”

“The fact that the Kaiser Permanente program could go from just a few thousand shipyard workers in Richmond, arriving to the millions and millions today and still maintain its relationship to quality and to community is extremely important,” Starr said.

And the fuel that has kept Kaiser Permanente growing is the larger idea of the importance of building community, Starr added.

“Coming out of a need to face an unprecedented situation is part of what has kept the Kaiser Permanente program growing and making adjustments over the years,” he said. “It certainly is the great big idea, but it's part of another, even larger idea — that idea of community. Of working together and feeling a sense of transformation and renewal in the face of social stress, and being animated, always by the preciousness of life itself — and California as a delightful place to live that life."

Thank you, Mr. Starr.

Full C-SPAN video of Kevin Starr’s talk