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California hospitals will miss earthquake preparedness deadline according to Rand report

By Tamara Barak, Bay City News Service

January 19, 2007

Almost half of California's hospitals will fail to meet the state's earthquake safety requirements by the 2013 deadline, according to a report released Thursday by the California HealthCare Foundation.

The report, conducted by the RAND Corporation as a follow-up to a 2002 study, found upgrading hospitals to meet the deadline could total as much as $110 billion.

"Obviously, if there's a major earthquake, there could be large consequences for patients and people who work in these facilities," said California HealthCare Foundation spokesman Steven Birenbaum.

The seismic requirements are not only to protect patients and staff, but also to ensure hospital facilities are stable and ready to handle a large number of casualties if an earthquake strikes.

"The state's been fortunate in that some of the previous earthquakes didn't produce a great number of casualties. If a hospital wasn't prepared to handle a large number of casualties, that would be a pretty bad situation," Birenbaum said.

The seismic deadline is mandated by Senate Bill 1953, which was passed by the Legislature in 1994 in the wake of the 6.7 magnitude Northridge quake, which caused $3 billion in damage to Southern California hospitals.

The law required all California hospitals to undertake retrofitting or reconstruction by 2008, which later was extended to 2013. It mandates that all hospitals must be earthquake-safe by 2030.

The report released today estimates that most hospitals in the state will miss the 2030 deadline as well.

"The question is whether these deadlines will ever be met," Birenbaum said. "Some hospitals are preparing. Others are playing a wait-and-see game to see if the Legislature will change."

Hospitals face obstacles in meeting the mandate - the largest of which is the cost of construction, the report acknowledged.

"Hospitals are about the most expensive infrastructure projects around. The cost of providing a new hospital is about $1,000-per-square-foot.

That's three times that of a new office building," Birenbaum said.

Hospitals have few options to recoup the costs, said David O'Neill, senior program officer at California HealthCare Foundation.

"Many hospitals are operating below or very close to break-even. For them, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to finance new construction with revenue from health care operations," O'Neill said.

The cost will likely be passed on to employers and consumers through insurance premiums or taxes, according to the report.

"Ultimately, patient, employers and taxpayers will pay for the cost of new hospital buildings. And the high cost of earthquake disaster mitigation may force some hospitals to close, reducing vital access to services in some communities," O'Neill said.

The cost of bringing Santa Rosa Community Hospital into seismic compliance factored into the decision to close its doors in 2008, said Karen Garner, spokeswoman for Sutter Health. Sutter announced the closure Monday.

"Seismic safety regulations, the cost of construction, rising health care costs - all of that played into the decision," Garner said.

Sutter does not have plans to close any of its other hospitals, Garner said, but virtually all of them will need work before 2030.

"We're committed to meeting the timelines. We'll meet them through a combination of retrofit, replacement, or relocation of services," she said.

Copyright © 2007 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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