One of Kaiser Permanente’s key features is that it is an “Integrated health care system” — meaning it seamlessly provides care and coverage together and provides a wide range of services under one roof, whether in a Kaiser Permanente medical office or hospital or at a contracted facility. But in 1945 “integrated” also held another important meaning when the health plan was opened to the public — it reflected a deep commitment to being one of the first health care providers in the United States to have racially integrated hospitals and waiting rooms, as well as an ethnically diverse workforce, including physicians and allied health professionals.
During World War II, compliance with federal law (such as the Fair Employment Practice Committee) as well as decent best practices meant that employees were treated without institutional discrimination. An estimated 20,000 African Americans, along with many Chinese Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans, worked in the Kaiser shipyards. Kaiser Industries took great pride in this ethnic and racial diversity, featuring stories in the shipyard newsletters. A caption for a photo of an elegantly attired African-American female shipyard worker launching the Liberty ship S. Hall Young boasted: “How’s this, Adolf? It’s Richmond’s answer to your efforts to split America into warring racial groups.”
Industrial health care covered all workers, and the affordable supplemental health plan that Sidney Garfield, M.D. created for workers and their families in the Kaiser shipyards were equally open. In a time when the Civil Rights movement was just coalescing, racism in America was pervasive. Access to health care was no exception, yet the Permanente Foundation Hospitals took the high road.
Journalist Nick Bourne wrote about the Permanente Health Plan in the San Francisco News on October 7, 1943. He noted:
Illness knows no color line here. Red-helmeted men, women welders, Negroes lined up for a checkup by the busy young doctors. In one double room was Miss Katherine Rossi, shipyard loan office employee, here from Duluth, Minn., for six months; ill six months from skin trouble. A Negro woman was in the adjoining bed. "So help me!" declared Miss Rossi. "I've been in hospitals before, but never one like this. It's sure swell. I don't know what I would have done."
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union newspaper The Dispatcher favorably remarked in 1945:
“The hospital’s facilities are open to all groups with no segregation of patients because of creed or color.”
In 1946, the year after the Health Plan was opened to the public, several local policemen visited the Oakland hospital with an eye to join. Permanente medical economist Avram Yedidia recalled the event:
“... The police chief said to me, ‘You know, when we walked through, I saw that you had some Negroes and whites in the same room. I don’t think we like that.’ “As I can recall, I responded, ‘Do you know this plan started that way, with blacks and whites in the shipyards, and that’s the way it goes. They worked together, and they were sick together.’ ” I told the police chief: ‘Those who don’t like it shouldn’t join the plan.’”
Diversity and inclusion continues to be a guiding principle at Kaiser Permanente. In 2013 Diversity Inc. magazine ranked Kaiser Permanente third in their “Top 50” national corporations, noting a workforce that at all levels reflects high percentages of women, Blacks, Latinos and Asians and has a diverse board of directors. This year Kaiser Permanente moved up to #2. Ronald Copeland, MD, Kaiser Permanente’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, recently affirmed the organization’s progress and challenge:
We must robustly, and in a systematic way, embrace multiculturalism and differences of our workforce and our member population to make sure that everybody’s meaningful needs are met in a personalized way…That is a journey we have been on for nearly 70 years and much progress has been made, but we still have a ways to go in order to become truly inclusive.
It’s about understanding and owning your own talents and vulnerabilities, and being comfortable and humble enough to share with and learn from others. It is about seeing and respecting the value in other people who are different than you and expecting them to do the same in return.
Over the past 70 years Kaiser Permanente's commitment to nondiscrimination has moved well beyond race and ethnicity, to include gender, generation, sexual orientation, physical, and cognitive abilities in the pursuit of equality without exception. And, as a testament to the acceptance and support for such practices, 10 million people have chosen to "join the plan."
Happy 70th anniversary, Kaiser Permanente.