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Senators work to move seismic deadlines for California hospitals

A state deadline to ensure California hospitals meet seismic safety
standards is fast approaching. But with a soaring, multi-billion dollar
price tag, two bills aimed at moving deadline day for many hospitals are
moving through the Legislature.

The most sweeping of the proposals is authored by Sen. Jackie Speier,
D-Hillsborough. Speier’s SB 167, which currently is being held in the
Assembly Health Committee, would require the Office of Statewide Health
Planning and Development (OSHPD) to determine which of the state’s hospitals
are in most dire need of seismic upgrade, and which can afford to wait.

The state’s most recent data shows that more than one-third of the 2,700
hospital buildings in California are in need of
seismic upgrades. Under
state law, hospitals have until 2008 to meet the first round of seismic
standards. Hospitals currently can apply for a five-year extension of that
deadline.

The California Hospital Association (CHA) estimates that the price tag for
bringing all of those buildings up to code is “well north of $50 billion,”
according to CHA spokeswoman Jan Emmerson.

Speier’s bill would require OSHPD to prioritize hospital buildings. Those
that were deemed not to be, in Emmerson’s words, “the worst of the worst”
would be able to postpone seismic retrofitting until 2020.

“The evaluation of those buildings was done using modeling technology from
the early ’90s,” says Emmerson. “There is now more state of the art
technology. If we were to re-evaluate now, using today’s technology, experts
believe 40 to 50 percent would no longer be classified as being at risk of
collapse.”

But Speier’s measure is opposed by the powerful Service Employees
International Union (SEIU). SEIU spokeswoman Beth Capell says some hospitals
can afford to retrofit their buildings but are turning to the Legislature to
rid them of a hefty financial burden.

“To us there are three categories of hospitals: those trying to do the right
thing, hospitals that are too poor to do this on their own, and wealthy
scofflaws.” Capell says the wealthy hospitals like Stanford and Cedars-Sinai
“have resources and are failing to comply with the law, and they do not
deserve special treatment. We think that SB 167 is intended to encourage
wealthy scofflaws to behave badly,” she said.

But Emmerson says even the profitable hospitals cannot keep pace with the
soaring costs of hospital construction. She cited a study conducted by that
shows the cost of hospital construction has increased by 66 percent over the
last three years.

Concerned legislators say delays in the deadlines are necessary because
current law mandates that any hospital building not up to code by the
deadline must close its doors. That would only exacerbate problems caused by
recent hospital closures and shortages of emergency-care facilities in
underserved communities.

Sen. Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, says the state mandates are “neutering a
community’s ability to handle acute care.”

Cox is carrying a far less controversial measure that would also move some
of the seismic deadlines. Cox’s SB 1661, which cleared the Senate Health
Committee last week, would give hospitals that already have begun the
seismic retrofitting construction an extra two years to finish their work.
Currently, hospitals can apply for an extension until 2013. Under Cox’s
bill, hospitals that have building permits and plans in place would have
until 2015 to finish the retrofitting.

Unlike Speier’s bill, labor groups and hospitals are working together to
ensure Cox’s bill makes its way through the Legislature. Capell says SEIU
has been involved in negotiations on the bill, and is not expected to oppose
the measure, in essence giving it tacit approval from labor.

“We’ve said all along that we’re willing to work with hospitals that are
trying to meet the deadline, but run into difficulties in meeting a specific
date,” she said. “We’re just not willing to extend blanket deadlines to all
hospitals.”

Once the deadline issue is resolved, there is likely to be another fight
over who should pay for bringing California hospitals into seismic
compliance. Bond money for hospital retrofits was part of Democrats’ bond
package. But the hospitals’ association is not necessarily in favor of the
idea.

“We really were not advocating that we be included in the bond,” says
Emmerson. “Our concern is that if the Legislature gives us, say, $2 billion,
it won’t solve the problem.”

But labor groups and Assembly Speaker Fabian N


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