September 18, 2013

The genesis of Kaiser Permanente Colorado

Utah miners, a strike, and the need for care were the ingredients to opening Kaiser Permanente Colorado in 1969.

The seed planted in Dragerton, Utah, would eventually grow into a tree in Colorado.

In 1942 a 35-bed hospital was built and operated under the auspices of the War Production Board in Dragerton, Utah, about 150 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. The small hospital in Carbon County provided care for miners who were extracting coal for wartime steel production.

At the end of the war, a local physician purchased the Dragerton hospital as war surplus and contracted with the United Mine Workers to provide medical services. Unfortunately, the care was not to the miners’ satisfaction. Complaints grew. The physician’s billing practices were suspect, and he refused to refer major surgeries to Salt Lake City though he himself had no training in surgery.

newspaper clipping with photo of a group of people standing inside a hospital room

The situation became so bad that in the winter of 1952 the miners went on strike to force reforms at the hospital. William Dorsey, MD, the regional director for the United Mine Workers Welfare and Retirement Fund in Denver, represented the interests of the UMW.

To break the impasse, U.S. Steel, the major mining operator in the area, appealed to Henry J. Kaiser — Kaiser Steel operated mines in Carbon County — with the request for the Permanente Foundation to buy out the physician. Kaiser agreed and the articles of incorporation of the Utah Permanente Hospital were signed on February 26, 1952.

A refurbished hospital and a long-standing partnership with Kaiser Rehabilitation Hospital in Vallejo, Calif., to provide rehabilitation medicine to injured miners restored good relations with the UMW and in the greater mining community.

The health care program would exist in that Utah microcosm until 1966, when the Foundation sold the hospital.

Now the story comes back to Dr. Dorsey, who had made numerous overtures, to Kaiser Permanente’s leaders, starting in 1952, to establish the health care program in the Rocky Mountain region. He was convinced that after the success at Dragerton, Kaiser Permanente was the right health plan for UMW members in the Denver and Rocky Mountain areas.

1950 coal miner occupational therapy rehab KP Vallejo
Mine worker patient at KP Vallejo Rehabilitation hospital using laptop loom for occupational therapy.

In 1967 Dorsey presented to CEO Clifford Keene and the Kaiser Permanente Committee a University of Colorado study indicating that there was a strong market for a prepaid group practice in Denver.

After a year of study, a plan to expand to Colorado won the approval of the Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Health Plan Board of Trustees. The Region began operations in Denver on July 1, 1969.

Today Kaiser Permanente Colorado serves 540,000 members in three large service areas — the Denver/Boulder area; in Southern Colorado stretching from Colorado Springs to Pueblo; and in Northern Colorado, the Fort Collins, Loveland and Greeley areas. The region boasts over a thousand Colorado Permanente Physicians and 6000 employees serving in 26 — soon to be 28 — medical offices.

So it was, in the words of Dr. John Smillie, a physician with The Permanente Medical Group in Northern California, “the seed planted in Dragerton, Utah, would eventually grow into a tree in Colorado.”