Surgeries were postponed, chemotherapy treatments canceled and other procedures deemed “non-urgent” postponed as tens of thousands of health care workers began striking across the country on Wednesday.
In what union leaders are calling the largest health care workers’ strike in U.S. history, more than 75,000 Kaiser Permanente employees in five states walked off their jobs this week and demanded better working conditions amid failed contract negotiations.
According to the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, the strike, which is expected to last three days in some areas, will affect more than 40 Kaiser Permanente hospitals and medical office buildings in California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Virginia and Washington, DC.
The majority of striking workers are in California, where Kaiser Permanente, the country’s largest nonprofit health care organization, is based.
Due to the disruptions, patients in the state were left in a state of embarrassment.
In Sacramento, toddler Caden Young was scheduled to undergo ear tube surgery Thursday after suffering recurring ear infections. But the operation was postponed Tuesday until December “due to staffing shortages,” said his mother, Tiffany Young.
“That was really concerning,” she said, adding that the procedure would ease her 17-month-old son’s pain, help drain fluid from his ears and allow him to take antibiotics less often.
“We talked last week and this week about how much we’re looking forward to it, how we hope this makes him feel so much better, and then getting that call yesterday was just heartbreaking,” Young, 36, said.
“I know it is seen as minor, but it is extremely important for parents when their baby is suffering,” she added.
In Modesto, 69-year-old John Schnaidt had an appointment Wednesday for his weekly chemotherapy treatment for pancreatic cancer, which is fatal. But on Tuesday, he received a call from Kaiser telling him his session had been canceled, said his wife, Lisa Schnaidt.
Horrified, the couple sought help from a local television station, which helped reverse the cancellation – an outcome that Lisa Schnaidt said many others had failed to achieve.
“What makes me sad is all these chairs that are empty right now,” she said. “I just know every time we’ve been here it’s been busy. “Almost every chair was taken and I see a lot of empty chairs right now.”
“It’s eerily quiet,” she added.
Lisa Schnaidt said the facility’s oncologist said difficult decisions had to be made due to staffing shortages.
“The people who have a chance of a cure were left on the schedule, and the people who have a chance of possible surgery later were left on the schedule,” she said the oncologist told her.
“Neither applies to my husband,” she said. “That tells me, ‘You’re not worth it today.’ I can understand it, but I can’t accept it.”
In San Francisco, 33-year-old Alanna Darby waited seven months for the next step in her gender-affirming care: facial feminization surgery. On Monday, she learned that her appointment scheduled for Thursday had been canceled.
“I got a call from the planner,” Darby said, “that they had to cancel and they just didn’t have any bookings open yet.”
She says it’s difficult not knowing when she’ll be able to have surgery: “What hurts is that I had something to look forward to and something that would make me feel better in my body.”
To prepare for surgery, Darby had to stop hormone replacement therapy and was unable to shave her face.
“I’ve had mood swings and gender dysphoria because I can’t do what makes me feel better about my body right now,” she said.
In a statement, Kaiser said that “certain non-urgent appointments and procedures may need to be rescheduled if it is appropriate and safe for the patient.” A spokesman denied that Kaiser canceled chemotherapy treatments for terminal cancer patients in Modesto but maintained them for terminal cancer patients because of the strike.
“We recognize how important every appointment is to a patient and we strive to minimize disruption that a strike may cause,” the statement said.
Kaiser did not want to say how many appointments were canceled or postponed. According to its website, it serves nearly 13 million people nationwide.
There were many medical practices, departments and services in California listed as closed on Kaiser’s website during the strike days.
The striking workers include qualified professional nurses; Optician; behavioral health professionals; Pharmacist; emergency, radiology and surgical technicians; and people in hundreds of other roles, the union said.
In an earlier statement, Kaiser said management and union representatives remain at the negotiating table and continue to push for a new agreement.
In advance of a strike, “robust emergency plans” were put in place to ensure that patients continued to receive care, it said. It said all hospitals and emergency rooms would remain open and that many trained contract workers would help fill in for striking staff.
“Our plans ensure the urgent needs of our members and patients are a top priority,” it said.