Members Don't Grow on Trees

How the Mid-Atlantic States region brought new members into the KP fold by tapping into the power of the unions—and how frontline staff helped close the deal

The loyalty of a small group of SEIU janitorial workers at American University in Washington, D.C., demonstrates the power of KP’s front line to grow and retain membership: They inspired their union to bring an even larger group into the Kaiser Permanente fold.

When the New York-based Local 32BJ consolidated some smaller units in its Mid-Atlantic States coverage area and raised the possibility of changing health care providers, the university’s janitorial workers balked at leaving KP.

Why? The care and service they receive from frontline workers, managers and physicians in KP’s Mid-Atlantic States region.

“We were taken aback by their adamancy,” said Barbara Caress, director of Strategic Policy and Planning for Local 32BJ, an SEIU union that uses its Taft-Hartley funds to provide health coverage for about 100,000 janitorial, security and other workers in the northeastern United States. “It led us to think about why they were so committed to Kaiser. This was an atypical response.”

Front lines shine

That led 32BJ officials to seriously consider KP as an alternative for several thousand members who work for a variety of employers in KP’s Mid-Atlantic States region. Most of them are immigrants for whom Spanish is the sole or primary language.

Leaders from the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions and KP already were courting 32BJ—and other unions—for more health plan members as part of a joint marketing venture. At this opening, they leapt into action, giving KP’s front lines a new opportunity to shine.

The Union Coalition and KP designed a special “Backstage Pass”—a bilingual demo and facilities tour that gave potential members from SEIU the opportunity to interact with care providers and see how the Labor Management Partnership sets KP apart from other health plans and systems.

“We needed to engage local leadership and rank and file,” Caress said. “It was their call (whether they wanted to change health plans), not ours.”

At one facility, the West End Medical Office Building in Northwest D.C., the 32BJ workers met Louise Casa, a KP nurse practitioner and shop steward for UFCW Local 400. Casa explained to the group how she, her partner and daughter all receive KP care—and noted how she appreciates the convenience of having the lab, pharmacy, and primary and specialty care providers all in one location.

Collaborative marketing

Casa, who’s been with KP since 1997, also explained how the Internal Medicine department employees work on an interdisciplinary team that includes physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses and nutritionists “who all believe that the patient is the focus of our work.”

“I think the members of 32BJ were pleased to see a sister union member,” said Casa. “I am proud to be part of a company and a coalition of unions who have stepped into uncharted waters to enhance our labor experience and drive the success of our company.”

“I think it was very inspiring for them to see nurses working in a very active labor environment,” said Michael Kapsa, director of Business Strategy for the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, who helped KP reach out to the union leaders.

The tour tapped into the larger joint marketing strategy that takes advantage of KP’s deep and largely positive history with labor unions. In the Mid-Atlantic States region, Kapsa has been working with the region’s sales team to win accounts with unions that use their trust funds to offer health coverage to their members.

“There is no way this would have happened without collaboration around growth,” Kapsa said. “They appreciated the KP model, but needed more information.”

Kapsa and his partner, David R. Russell, the region’s manager of Large Group Sales, landed the account and, as of Oct. 1, about 3,200 additional 32BJ workers became new KP members.

John August, executive director of the Union Coalition, said KP stands to gain as the nation grows more diverse.

“Providing medical care that meets the cultural needs of all patients is more than a diversity issue, it is a bottom-line issue,” August said. “The partnership can and will play a role in bringing the power of the Value Compass to the field of culturally competent care”—care that takes into account issues of race, language, age, gender, lifestyle, ethnicity, faith, location and/or socioeconomic status that affect individual decisions and attitudes about health and medical care.

Dr. Robert Pearl, president and CEO of the MidAtlantic Permanente Medical Group, noted that providing superior quality and personalized service to all patients is the goal of physicians, nurses and support staff across the region.

“Culturally competent care is essential for us to achieve that goal,” he said. “Many of our new members did not obtain the preventive screening and health care treatments they needed in the past. By welcoming them into Kaiser Permanente and meeting their language and cultural needs, we have the opportunity to help them improve their health, not just now, but in the future. Having spoken with some of these new members, I know they are convinced they made the right choice for themselves and their families when they selected KP.”

Meeting cultural needs

The joint marketing collaboration continues in other regions, too. Pre-planning with the coalition has helped identify other accounts likely to lead to similar successes, Russell said.

The addition to the region’s roughly 500,000-member tally was a coup, Russell said. Now the challenge is to ensure the workers understand KP and understand how to access care.

With help from regional Diversity Director Monica Villalta, bilingual tours were provided, along with membership meetings in union halls. KP and the union also produced a new member kit, which included a membership card holder written in Spanish, explaining their rights—and avenues—to having health care delivered in their native language.

Because of the new members’ limited English skills, frontline workers will have an especially significant role to play in how they experience Kaiser Permanente and influence whether they want to stay with KP.

Caress, for example, was impressed that KP had bilingual staff and many resources in Spanish.

“They seemed very sensitive to language issues,” she said. “It is very hard to get that kind of service in a network of doctors.”

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