Health & Medicine

Mandatory flu shots for Kaiser hospital employees in new 3-year contract

Taking a page from California’s flu shot policy, almost all of Kaiser Permanente’s 105,000 hospital employees nationwide will be required to get flu vaccines, some starting as soon as this week. The move, announced Wednesday, is part of a new three-year contract ratified by Kaiser’s 28 hospital unions nationwide.

“It’s a monumental change. We don’t think any other hospital unions have done this on such a large scale,” said Dennis Dabney, Kaiser’s senior vice president for national labor relations.

California’s statewide policy requiring hospitals to offer flu vaccines to employees was helpful in guiding Kaiser’s plan, officials said.

“Many California counties have already done (flu vaccinations), which helped the union leadership understand it,” said Hal Ruddick, executive director of Kaiser’s union coalition. “We’ve had experience working with it. We thought it would make sense to extend it nationwide. ... It’s important to show a public message in support of vaccinations.”

In 2006, California became the first state to pass legislation requiring hospitals to offer flu vaccines to all health care employees. Those who decline to be inoculated must sign a form stating their refusal.

About 81 percent of California hospital employees volunteered to be vaccinated in the 2013-14 flu season, according to the most recent statewide survey by the state Department of Public Health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, only 13 states require or recommend that health care workers in hospitals and other medical settings get an annual flu shot. With influenza and pneumonia the eighth-largest causes of U.S. deaths, the CDC recommends annual flu vaccinations (either shots or nasal spray) for anyone over six months of age.

For Kaiser employees, including about 5,700 in California, the free vaccinations will be available whenever flu season officially starts in their region, typically in October. Those who do not want to get a flu shot for medical or other reasons must sign a refusal form, but must wear a face mask when in direct patient contact, Ruddick said. The flu-shot-or-mask policy is mandatory for all employees who have direct patient contact.

Dabney didn’t have a price tag on the vaccinations, but he said efforts to prevent flu among Kaiser’s employees and patients are “priceless.”

“If you’re going to be in health care with sick people in your facilities who are susceptible, you don’t want to pass germs to patients, if you can prevent it,” he said. “(Vaccinations) make life better for patients and employees.”

Kaiser’s new contract, reached after about two months of bargaining, also granted union employees in eight states and Washington, D.C., a combined 10 percent raise over three years and enacted adjustments in retiree health coverage that will move most employees into group health insurance rather than individual plans in retirement.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck