Quake safety extension for hospitals approved

Current hospital seismic safety laws call for the riskiest buildings to be shored up by 2013 or 2015, or the state will revoke their operating licenses. State authorities say dozens of hospitals face closure on Jan. 1, 2013.

The bill combines the hospital seismic safety provisions with a measure to shore up hospital finances, a move that rankled critics. The finance portion of the bill would extend a budget maneuver that brings additional federal funds into the state for hospitals.

During yesterday's committee hearing, the lone voices of opposition to the bill were Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, and California Nurses Association legislative advocate Stephanie Roberson.

Ammiano called the bill "predatory" and a "bait and switch" that improperly joins a budget fix with a seismic deadline extension. Ammiano said he was offended that the bill was not strengthened or changed from the version that was circulated before the magnitude 9 earthquake struck Japan.

"I don't see one ounce of sympathy and compassion taking into account that what could happen in Japan could happen in California," Ammiano said.

Roberson asked for the seismic component of the bill to be separated from the funding solution, but was not successful.

A California Watch investigation revealed that state hospital authorities have not required hospitals to take a thorough inventory of the "collapse risk score" of 660 buildings considered most dangerous.

Of the 90 highest-risk buildings that have been assessed, more than a dozen California hospital buildings have "collapse risk" scores of 10 to 30 percent. Those buildings, the investigation found, tend to be close to a fault and have one or more serious structural shortcomings.

The bill would require that all buildings seeking an extension submit data for a collapse risk assessment by Sept. 30, 2012. The state runs a software program that takes into account information about building materials, relevant building codes and structural make-up and arrives at a collapse-risk score.

The risk score, the bill says, would be a factor considered in whether the state grants an extension. The state hospital building authority would also take community needs and hospital finances into account when ruling on extensions.

The bill, sponsored by the California Hospital Association, was written by Sen. Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and co-authored by Assembly Health Committee chairman William Monning, D-Carmel, and Senate Health Committee chairman Edward Hernandez, D-West Covina. It passed the Assembly Health Committee Tuesday in a 14-to-1 vote.

Ultimately, hospitals would have to meet benchmarks in 2012, 2015 and 2018 to qualify for extensions. The bill, if passed, calls for the details of the measure to be hammered out in "emergency regulations."

With current laws in place, 49 hospitals would have to be closed down on Jan. 1, 2013, according to Paul Coleman, the facilities division director of the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.

Coleman said during the hearing that if the state followed through, "that would result in a loss of 15.5 percent of the hospital beds in Southern California alone."

Lawmakers have passed other measures in recent years giving hospitals more leeway in meeting deadlines that were initially set more than a decade ago. However, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed some bills, saying giving some hospitals a break is an injustice to the hospitals that have fixed risky buildings.

Monning said he is more concerned about deaths linked to unmet healthcare needs than to earthquakes. He also said the bill is tailored to give state authorities power to grant or deny extensions based on several factors.

"No two hospitals will be treated the same," Monning said. "This provides more scrutiny and more safety."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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