‘The people’s greatest need’

Tracing its beginnings as a public healthcare system back to the end of WWII, Kaiser Permanente celebrates its 60th anniversary

World War II officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945, when Japan formally surrendered. Peacetime brought an end to more than just fighting. During the war, Vancouver’s population grew from 18,000 to more than 90,000. An influx of workers poured into the area to work at the Kaiser Shipyards in Vancouver and Portland. At its peak, the Vancouver shipyard employed more than 38,000 workers. Following the end of the war, the shipyards closed and the city’s population declined. However, more than old shipyard buildings remain as a reminder that the war and efforts to win it from the home front had a significant impact on Vancouver.

Henry Kaiser was an industrialist; he helped build the Hoover, Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams, the thousands of ships that helped win WWII and even automobiles. But his enduring legacy is as a socially responsible business man. Kaiser, along with Dr. Sidney Garfield, created the first preventative, prepaid healthcare system to provide for the thousands of men and women who worked for him.

Shortly before he died at the age of 85 in 1967, Kaiser said, “Of all the things I’ve done, I expect only to be remembered for my hospitals. They’re filling the people’s greatest need – good health.”

Seeing a need to continue and expand the system that served his workers, the end of the war brought the birth of what is known today as Kaiser Permanente.

“Kaiser Permanente was one of the good things to come out of the war,” said company spokesman Jim Gersbach.

The United States government approved a shipyard site at Vancouver in 1942, joining two other Kaiser shipyards in Portland. Through 1945, the Vancouver shipyard produced 141 ships. Kaiser’s shipyards produced 1,500 vessels, 30 percent of all U.S. Maritime Commission production. His ships were built in two-thirds the time and at 25 percent less cost than the other shipyards.

“He knew that if you had good wages, a safe environment and healthcare, you could increase productivity and create a loyal workforce,” said Tom Debley, director of heritage resources at Kaiser Permanente.

Kaiser and Garfield first joined forces in 1938. Kaiser and his son Edgar Kaiser needed to provide healthcare for the 6,500 workers and their families at the site of the Grand Coulee Dam in eastern Washington. Garfield had first implemented his new kind of prepaid, preventative healthcare during the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct five years earlier. As the dam neared completion in 1941, Kaiser and Garfield’s partnership was nearing an end. But then Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese and the U.S. entered WWII. Kaiser began operating shipyards along the West Coast, and he brought his innovative healthcare system with him. New cities and some of the largest housing developments in the country at the time sprang up in and around Vancouver.

Life-long Clark County resident Jim DeLong worked as a chauffeur at the Vancouver shipyard in the summer of 1942. Delong, 82, was 19 at the time and had just graduated from high school.

“It was very pleasant for me, I would drive dignitaries around and go to ship launchings,” he said.
DeLong was witness to the many drastic changes the influx of workers brought to Vancouver.

“It was a very busy place,” said DeLong. “There were a lot of good times in town. The morale was pretty high.”

Much of the prosperity and the shipyard’s ability to produce a ship per week, could be attributed to the conditions and benefits afforded to the workers.

“The Kaiser Company was great about providing the things the workers needed,” said Delong. “They had a job, housing and healthcare for them.”

The Northern Permanente Foundation Hospital was built in Vancouver in the summer of 1942 by contractor George H. Buckler Co. and architects Wolff and Phillips. The hospital opened with 70 beds and six surgery suites. The cost of the hospital was an estimated $221,000, excluding equipment and furnishings. The hospital was built on a 15-acre site one-mile east of the shipyard overlooking the Columbia River. It served as a Kaiser Permanent hospital until 1959, when the company completed the first post-war hospital in Portland, Bess Kaiser Medical Center. The old hospital was recently demolished.

In 1944, the facility was the first non-military hospital to use the new army-developed drug penicillin. The drug was flown in from Boston to treat the 7-year-old daughter of a shipyard worker.

Kaiser and Garfield brought prepaid, preventative healthcare to the masses on Oct. 1, 1945, less than a month after the end of the war. The company first took the name Permanente Health Plan, which was derived from the Permanente Creek that ran near Kaiser’s first plant in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. In 1952, the name was changed to Kaiser Permanente in recognition of the health plan’s origins.

DeLong began working for Kaiser Permanente following a stint in the Air Force and his graduation from University of Portland in 1948. He began as a credit manager and retired as the regional administrator for the company after 40 years. When DeLong began working for Kaiser Permanente, it had just 12 doctors serving 10,000 members. DeLong said the company was struggling to survive serving the reduced population. But by 1957, the company had grown to 23,000 members in the area, and the construction of the new hospital in Portland helped the company immediately boost its numbers to 35,000. And the company continued to expand.

Today, none of Henry Kaiser’s industrial companies remain. But Kaiser Permanente now serves more than 8 million members in nine sates and Washington D.C. In Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington alone, more than 465,000 people are Kaiser Permanente members. Kaiser Permanente operates one specialty care and four primary care medical offices and two dental offices in Clark County, with plans to build a 65,000-square-foot medical office building in Orchards. As of August 2004, the company was the third largest healthcare-industry employer in Clark County with 603 employees. The legacy continues.