Seattle’s Group Health Cooperative will be acquired by California’s Kaiser Permanente, forming a new region for the giant health-insurance and care provider, which already serves more than 10 million members in eight states and Washington, D.C., officials announced Friday.
It’s not yet clear what the new name will be, but the move marks a significant milestone in the nearly 70-year history of Group Health, which was formed in Seattle in 1947 with a mission of providing integrated health care and health coverage to Northwest consumers.
Group Health has more than 68,000 members in Pierce County and employs about 820 people. In Thurston County, it has almost 39,000 members and approximately 420 employees.
No immediate shifts are planned in coverage and care for current members, officials said, nor are changes coming for employees. The deal is subject to approval by Group Health’s voting membership and by regulators, including the Washington state insurance commissioner and federal authorities.
“This is an exciting new chapter,” said Dr. Steve Tarnoff, president of Group Health Physicians, who has been with the organization for more than three decades. “This both preserves and promotes our legacy.”
The deal between the two nonprofits joins Group Health’s system with a like-minded, but much larger, partner to position both of them for growth in a changing health-care landscape, said Scott Armstrong, the firm’s president and chief executive.
“This is an opportunity to do more, better,” Armstrong said.
The two organizations have finalized an agreement for the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan to acquire Group Health, part of a wave of hospital-system and health-insurance mergers nationwide.
In exchange for Group Health, with 600,000 members and annual revenue of $3.5 billion, Kaiser Permanente is contributing $1.8 billion to set up a new Group Health Community Foundation, Armstrong said.
In addition, Kaiser plans to invest an estimated $1 billion during the next decade in new facilities, staff, technology and research in Washington state, said Bernard J. Tyson, chairman and chief executive of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals.
After years of Group Health cost-cutting, one nurse said Friday that any plan to pump resources into the region was great news.
“The staff has been working hard,” said Martha Konicek, a registered nurse who works in hospice care, serving people in their homes in the Bremerton area. “People are at the end of their ability to do more with less.”
Konicek also said she was glad Kaiser Permanente bought Group Health instead of other local nonprofit systems. She wouldn’t name them, but MultiCare Health Systems and CHI Franciscan Health are both based in Tacoma.
“They would not have been as congruent with our goals and values,” she said.
Nationwide, regulators have expressed concerns that marketplace mergers may limit choices and drive up costs for consumers, issues echoed by state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, who promised to review the deal “very closely.”
“My chief concern is protecting consumers in Washington. This proposal requires my approval. My job is to ensure that the proposal benefits policyholders at Group Health and all consumers buying health insurance in Washington,” he said. “I want to ensure that we maintain the healthy competition and wide selection of plans we currently have in our state.”
It could take up to a year to finalize the move, which has been under discussion for about six months, said Armstrong and Susan Byington, chair of Group Health Cooperative’s board of trustees.
Armstrong, who earns more than $2 million a year, said he expects to stay on, and is “very confident” the acquisition will be approved.
Group Health, which faced cuts of $250 million in 2012, has regained a robust financial position and is moving forward with the acquisition out of a position of strength, not weakness, Armstrong said.
The acquisition is supported by Tarnoff, who leads the physicians group, which includes about 1,400 doctors and other healthcare providers in the Northwest. The group contracts with Group Health Cooperative to offer care.
Based in Oakland, Calif., Kaiser Permanente has $60 billion in annual revenue and about 10.3 million members in seven regions, including Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, the mid-Atlantic states, Northern California, Southern California and the Northwest, with Oregon and parts of southwest Washington. The Group Health acquisition will boost enrollment to nearly 11 million.
Joining an organization that has national reach, but allows local control, will help make health care more accessible and affordable for consumers, Tarnoff said.
“For those of you who have counted on Group Health to provide you with amazing physicians and clinical teams, and the coverage for your family needs, you will continue to receive the best care and coverage available,” he said.
Group Health officials planned to notify the organization’s 7,000 employees about the plans Friday morning.
News Tribune staff writer Kathleen Cooper contributed to this report.
Group Health in the South Sound
Pierce County: Two clinics in Tacoma, one in Puyallup
Thurston County: One clinic in Olympia