85,000 Kaiser Permanente employees are voting on whether to authorize a strike.
A strike could interrupt hospital and outpatient services for millions across the country.
Yet short-staffing is already putting patients' lives at risk, union organizers and a patient say.
Voting is underway among 85,000 Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers on whether or not to authorize what would be the largest healthcare strike in US history.
Kaiser Permanente employs about 217,000, according to their most recent annual report. So, if the strike is approved, about 40% of the workforce would be walking off the job.
Such a huge number of workers could impact the healthcare of more than 11 million patients across the country.
But despite the possibility of an interruption to their healthcare, some Kaiser Permanente patients are siding with the workers.
"The healthcare professionals there are fantastic," Kaiser Permanente patient Mark Mason said.
"But they're in a jam. Management is not providing the infrastructure that allows them to provide appropriate, necessary, and sorely needed medical services," Mason added.
What the strike could mean for Kaiser Permanente patients
The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions represents employees across dozens of roles at the company, including registered nurses, admissions staff, cleaners, phlebotomists, surgery assistants, and others. The union doesn't represent the company's doctors.
If all those essential employees went on strike, it could bring some of Kaiser Permanente's 39 hospitals to a stand-still, according to Keven Dardon, a patient access representative for a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Oregon and a bargaining team representative for his union, SEIU Local 49.
"It would be very detrimental for our patients," Dardon told Insider.
Hospitals would not be the only facilities impacted. The Coalition also represents pharmacists, pharmacy techs, social workers, financial services providers, and several others who provide follow-up care to patients outside of hospitals.
It is Kaiser Permanente's responsibility to prevent this interruption, Dardon said.
"We can't afford to have workers out on the picket line for two weeks and neglect patient care," Dardon said. "And that part falls on Kaiser."
When asked about interruptions to patient care, a Kaiser Permanente spokesperson directed Insider to an August 24 statement.
"We take any threat to disrupt care for our members seriously and have plans to ensure continued access to healthcare by our members, patients, and the communities we serve, should any union call for a strike," the statement reads. "Our members, patients, and our communities need us to be there for them."
The company is "confident" they will reach an agreement with workers ahead of their contract expiration on September 30, according to a statement released Friday.
Short staffing prevents quality healthcare, Kaiser Permanente patients and workers say
Short-staffing is the No. 1 issue impacting Kaiser Permanente employees and patients alike, causing patients to face long wait lists to see providers, said Miriam De La Paz, a Kaiser Permanente employee of almost 20 years, who is also a union organizer.
"We don't feel that it's OK that our patients have to wait two, three months for an appointment because there's not enough personnel to be able to open up more slots or more times to be seen," De La Paz told Insider. "It's scary for our patients. Say you were diagnosed with cancer — how long do you have to wait for that appointment before you're actually seen?"
Staffing shortages have posed a problem at healthcare facilities across the nation since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, in large part because of severe burn-out among healthcare providers.
For Kaiser Permanente patients like Mark Mason, the impacts of staff shortages are all too real — and he says a strike could be a potential solution.
Mason said his "complete and unequivocal" support for the potential strike comes after years of frustration with the healthcare provider because of long wait times to see specialists. One provider even told Mason he'd need to wait 3 to 9 months for a procedure to address severe leg pain, according to correspondence Mason shared with Insider.
"It seems to me Kaiser has an unwritten policy: If your life is threatened, go to the ER. If not, get on a waiting list," Mason said.
Kaiser Permanente says they hired more than 29,000 new employees last year and plan to exceed the number in 2023, according to their statement on Friday.
Dardon said the union effort has received a significant amount of support from Kaiser Permanente patients.
"Our members know that we've been voting all week here at different Kaiser sites in the Northwest," Dardon said. "They come to speak to us at our tents, bringing their concerns and listening to us. Their concerns are our concerns too, so we have the public support in this."
"Kaiser needs to listen to that message from its workers and from its members," Dardon said.
Are you a Kaiser Permanente patient or employee impacted by staffing shortages or long wait times? Reach this reporter at email@example.com.
Correction: September 5, 2023 — An earlier version of this story impliedwithout attribution that most or all Kaiser Permanente patients are siding with its workers deciding whether to strike. The headline has been updated to attribute that assertion to Kaiser Permanente workers.
This story was also updated September 4 to clarify registered nurses are members of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions and that Keven Dardon is a SEIU Local 49 bargaining team representative.
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