History of the Cooperative

In 1947, consumer-governed, prepaid group medical coverage was a radical idea. When Group Health Cooperative began, there was a major gap in health care that left most middle-class people without coverage. Union members, farmers and people from other cooperatives enacted a vision of a progressive, prepaid medical care system.

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To offer care, Group Health purchased an existing medical clinic that had its own small hospital. The Medical Security Clinic in downtown Seattle and St. Luke's Hospital on Seattle's Capitol Hill became Group Health's first facilities. On Jan. 1, 1947, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound began delivering a new kind of health care. The local medical scene was changing too. Just three months earlier, the University of Washington opened its school of medicine.

Expansion in the '50s and '60s

During the 1950s, the Cooperative moved its medical center next to the Capitol Hill hospital and expanded the hospital. A medical center was opened in Renton. Membership grew to 36,000, about 7 percent of the community population.

The 1960s saw rapid growth in membership as group plans were introduced and Medicare was signed into law. Enrollment surpassed 100,000 in 1967. Facility expansion continued, too, as medical centers sprung up in Burien, downtown Seattle and next to Central Hospital. The hospital continued to expand and modernize, as did existing medical centers.

Groundbreaking Affiliations

More expansion and refinement of Group Health's operations continued in the 1970s. Medical centers opened in Lynnwood, Federal Way, Olympia and Redmond. In 1977, Eastside Hospital opened in Redmond. A central distribution and support facility was built in Renton. Growth continued by absorbing Tacoma's Sound Health Association and its 11,000 members. By the end of 1979, enrollment stood at 277,920.

Continued expansion was coupled with diversity and community-building in the 1980s. Medical center councils were established in 1981 to augment consumer participation. Also that year, Group Health and the University of Washington signed the first affiliation agreement between a health maintenance organization and a university. In 1982, the first agreement was signed to provide care by non-Group Health physicians on Vashon and Maury islands.

Early in 1983, the Board approved creation of a research arm, the Group Health Center for Health Studies (renamed in 2009 to Group Health Research Institute); a patient information service, the Center for Health Promotion; and a charitable foundation, now called the Group Health Foundation. Group Health bought an existing health plan in Spokane, which served other parts of Eastern Washington and was later expanded. Enrollment topped 300,000.

The Politics of the '80s and '90s

In 1984, the first "See" and "Hear" Centers opened. By 1987, an affiliate named Group Health Northwest consolidated services east of the Cascades.

Forming alliances was the hallmark of the 1990s, as health care costs and availability became national political issues. In 1990, Group Health began Group Health Options, Inc., a subsidiary, which offered the Northwest's first point-of-service plan. In 1993, Group Health and Virginia Mason entered a "strategic alliance." In October 1994, Group Health membership passed 500,000.

A 1997 alliance with Kaiser Permanente, the nation's largest nonprofit health care system, allowed the two organizations to offer their patients reciprocity for both routine and urgent care, while the organizations retained their independence and separateness.

2000 and Beyond

In 2000, operations throughout Washington and North Idaho combined to become Group Health Cooperative, and we led the way into the new world of electronic health care. Group Health members can go online or use our mobile app to e-mail their doctors, request an appointment, refill prescriptions, check their lab and test results, review after-visit summaries, and more. We implemented electronic medical records, same-day appointments for primary care, self-referrals for many specialties, and group visits.

Today, our physician group has grown to encompass more than 1,000 physicians in Group Health clinics and many more contracted medical staff who work in the community. What began as a small, pioneering, community venture more than 60 years ago has evolved into a nationally acclaimed organization that's being recognized as a model for national health care reform.

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