Hospital seismic fixes not in state’s plan | SierraSun.com

Hospital seismic fixes not in state’s plan

Thomas Elias

No one can say anymore that Californians are pikers when it comes to spending their money (and their children’s) to upgrade and refurbish this state.

That’s one meaning of last year’s easy passage of Propositions 1A – 1E, which provide $38 billion in bond money to fix potholes, build new carpool lanes, shore up levees and freeway bridges, build mass transit and schools, create battered women’s shelters and even repair private apartments.

All worthy projects, no argument. But when ” not if, but when ” the next major earthquake strikes this state, none of those things will be as important as hospitals. And the huge infrastructure bond package designed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his buddies in the Democratic legislative leadership didn’t even mention hospitals.

The trouble with this is that dozens, maybe hundreds, of hospitals around the state might have to be shut down as early as next year ” five years from now if the state Building Standards Commission grants them a reprieve ” because they have not been retrofitted to withstand good-sized earthquakes.

The omission was odd, because prior state law certainly does not forget about hospitals. The 1973 Alfred E. Alquist Hospital Facilities Seismic Safety Act, passed in the wake of the collapse of the Olive View Hospital during the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, mandates that all new hospital construction meet stringent seismic standards.

It said nothing about older hospitals, but it should have, as anyone who stood outside the Granada Hills Community Hospital the morning of the 1994 Northridge earthquake could see. Both ends of that longish five-story structure sagged visibly after the magnitude 6.7 quake, and patients were wheeled and carried out as fast as humanly possible. But they couldn’t be taken to 12 of the nearest hospitals ” because those also had suffered severe damage and were at least partially “red-tagged.”

So legislators quickly passed a follow-up to the Alquist act, this law known as SB 1953. It demanded that any hospital not retrofitted by next year and posing any risk of collapse or significant risk of loss of life may be used only for non-acute care until it is fixed up. The law was written that way to ensure that all patients in non-retrofitted hospitals will be capable of either walking out after an earthquake or being wheeled out. No one who can’t move or be moved should be treated in any questionable facility.

Some hospitals have already gotten five-year extensions of the deadline, but more than half those affected have not.

And how many are affected? More than 500 hospitals, almost half the state’s total, are still not earthquake safe, according to a new report from the Oakland-based California HealthCare Foundation and the Rand Corp. think tank in Santa Monica.

Combine this with the U.S. Geological Survey’s estimate of an 80 percent to 90 percent risk of a 7.0 or greater earthquake in Southern California before 2030 and the survey’s estimate of a 62 percent likelihood of a similarly large one in Northern California and you get an idea of the stakes.

So unless politicians do more than set deadlines and then grant extensions, a lot of injured people will have noplace to go after the next large quake. Not to mention the number of patients already in hospitals when a big shock strikes who will have no place to transfer.

The final legal deadline for all hospitals to be completely up to snuff or shut down is 2030, but the Rand-CHF study indicates many won’t comply even within the next 23 years.

“Based on historical rates of construction and permit filings, about half the…hospital infrastructure will not comply with the 2008/2013 deadline,” said the report. So the ho-hum approach many hospitals took to the rules and deadlines set in 1994 now pretty much assures that about one-fourth of the state’s hospitals won’t comply even

by 2030.

Meanwhile, no one is providing public money for retrofitting those that do want to comply. And public money will be required, if the Rand-CHF construction cost estimate of between $45 and $110 billion is anywhere near accurate. The minimum cost estimated for hospital repair and replacement exceeds spending now planned for all those potholes, roads, schools and other good projects to be funded by last year’s bond issues.

Yes, legislators set the existing deadlines and they can move those deadlines back if they wish. But mere politicians cannot influence the timing of the next big earthquakes.

Which means it is high time the state’s leaders recognized their most urgent construction problem and did something about it – even if that means diverting some of the money from last year’s bonds away from the purposes stated on the ballot. If they don’t wake up, a lot of people will be killed, injured or left without care, whether they are insured or not.