How the Kaiser Permanente Strike Could Affect Patients

Tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente workers, including pharmacists, lab technicians, therapists and housekeepers, went on strike Wednesday morning. The strike continued on Thursday in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington State, so patients in those states could be affected.

Kaiser, whose health plans cover nearly 13 million people through a network of hospitals and clinics, says its hospitals, emergency departments and urgent care centers remain open. But patients should expect delays in scheduling appointments, and procedures that are not considered urgent could be postponed. Doctors and many nurses are not on strike. Kaiser said it would make time available for surgeries in the coming weeks to reschedule any procedures delayed as a result of the strike.

Many of Kaiser’s labs in California were closed because of the strike, so some tests and results will likely be delayed. An array of other services, like imaging and the filling of prescriptions, could be delayed because of the walkouts. Some clinics and pharmacies could be closed, and Kaiser said it would contact patients with any cancellations.

Kaiser’s hospitals are open. But some people seeking care could be directed to a hospital outside of Kaiser’s usual network if their doctors thought it was necessary. Kaiser’s hospital-based pharmacies also remain open, though the health system is urging people to use its mail order pharmacy if they can wait. Some patients may also be able to go to an outside retail pharmacy to fill a prescription.

Patients may feel the effects of the strike in other ways: Hospital rooms may be cleaned less frequently, and the outside workers that Kaiser has brought in to help may not be as familiar with the way a facility operates.

Kaiser Permanente operates in eight states and the District of Columbia, with 39 hospitals and more than 600 medical offices. Most of the striking workers are in California, where the health system is based.

There are no strikes in Georgia, Maryland and Hawaii, according to Kaiser officials, and few walkouts occurred in Washington State. By Thursday morning, the pharmacists and optometrists who took part in the strike in Virginia and the District of Columbia on Wednesday had returned to work.

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated staffing shortages that even Kaiser officials acknowledge still plague hospitals and other medical centers around the country. Patients and workers have had to deal with fewer nurses, aides and support staff members, according to many accounts.

Kaiser’s union representatives said a lack of adequate staffing created unsafe conditions for patients, and argued that better wages would lure workers to close the gaps created by burnout and the exodus of employees in the last few years.

Under a proposed four-year contract, the union had sought a $25 hourly minimum wage and additional increases over the next few years.

Kaiser had countered with minimum hourly wages of between $21 and $23 next year, increasing by a dollar a year and lower raises than the union had sought.

The strike started on Wednesday morning and could last through Saturday morning. A settlement could be reached before then.

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