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Hospitals welcome rumblings of earthquake relief

California hospitals may be off the hook for billions of dollars in seismic upgrades, thanks to a new technology that zeroes in on structural quake risks.

In 1994, just a few months after the Northridge earthquakes, SB 1953 was signed into law. The bill set two deadlines–2008 and 2030–for California hospitals to bring their buildings up to new earthquake-safety standards.

About a third of those buildings, approximately 1,100, are ranked as “Seismic Performance Category 1”–at the highest risk for major damage in a serious earthquake.

Under state law, most of those buildings need to be retrofitted or rebuilt entirely by January 2008. The law allows some of those hospitals to apply for extensions until 2013.

The state Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development now believes that many of those hospitals could get a reprieve from the costly upgrades category, thanks to new technology that offers a better assessment of seismic safety. The software is called Hazards U.S., or HAZUS for short.

“This technology just wasn’t available before. It’s a lot more exact than anything that could have been done when these buildings were first rated,” said OSHPD spokesperson Teresa Smanio. Those buildings that can be reclassified would get until 2030 to make their fixes.

The looming deadline already has prompted a rush of applications for extensions–which OSHPD is just wading through now. “A lot of hospitals waited until the last minute,” Smanio told Capitol Weekly.

“Given the limited money that hospitals have, we want to focus on the ones with the worst risk,” she explained. The agency contracted last month with San Francisco-based consultant Rutherford & Chekene to perform the HAZUS evaluation. Smanio said the process likely would take about three months.

Governor Schwarzenegger likewise has called for a “worst first” approach to hospital-safety upgrades, as part of his health-care budget this year.
That’s good news to the hospital industry. “It is very significant. It could definitely save billions,” said C. Duane Dauner, president of the California Hospital Association.

Dauner said his group estimates that as many as 40 percent of those buildings now categorized at SPC 1 could be downgraded.

CHA estimated last year that the bill for seismic upgrades in the state 400 hospitals would run as high as $60 billion, perhaps double that once the cost of financing was figured in.

And on Thursday, the California HealthCare Foundation released its own study (done by the RAND Corporation) claiming that seismic upgrades would run as high as $110 billion–not counting financing costs. The report also estimated that the seismic upgrades were so onerous that nearly half of the hospital buildings would not be completed by the 2008/2013 deadline.

The HAZUS evaluation could lower that bill, but its only part of the solution, said Dauner. His group is pushing for legislation to further extend the deadlines now imposed under SB 1953. “We’re going to sponsor bills. We’re talking to our authors now.”

And the hospital groups likely will look for financial relief from the Legislature. “Some hospitals are just not going to be able to afford it,” Dauner explained.

Efforts last year to extend deadlines for seismic retrofits met opposition from the California Nurses Association and the Service Employees International Union, which argued that some wealthy hospitals were trying to get the Legislature to let them off the hook.

“I think the climate is different now,” said Dauner. For one, the HAZUS evaluation could help depoliticize the issue–and rising construction costs have plainly outstripped early estimates of the SB 1953’s costs. “I think there’s a much greater recognition of the problem,” Dauner added.

That doesn’t mean the unions won’t put up another fight. “What we’ve seen is that every time the Legislature gives them a deadline, the majority of hospitals just lobby to extend those deadlines,” said CNA director of government relations Donna Gerber. “If you give them extensions, they just don’t do it.”

Gerber said that since most hospitals will get extensions until 2013, she doesn’t see any rush to loosen the rules.

“The bottom line is that, particularly in an earthquake, the one building you need standing is your community hospital. It makes us nervous that instead of putting their energy into making their buildings as safe as possible, we have an industry that keeps trying to get out of any requirement,” she added.

Contact Cosmo Garvin at cosmo.garvin@capitolweekly.net


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