For decades, health policymakers considered Kaiser Permanente the lode star of delivery system reform. Yet by the end of 1999, the nation’s oldest and largest group model HMO had experienced almost three years of significant operating losses, the first in the plan’s history. It was struggling to implement a functional electronic health record, and had a reputation for inconsistent customer service. But most seriously, it faced deep divisions between management and the leadership of its powerful Permanente Federation, which represents Kaiser’s more than 17,000 physicians, over both strategic direction and operations of the plan.
Against this backdrop, Kaiser surprised the health plan community by announcing in March 2002 the selection of a non-physician, George Halvorson, as its new CEO. Halvorson had spent most of his career in the Twin Cities, most recently as CEO of HealthPartners, a successful mixed model health plan. Halvorson’s reputation was as a product innovator; he not only developed a prototype of the consumer-directed health plan in the mid-1990’s, but also population health improvement objectives for its membership, both firsts in the industry.