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New Hospital Industry Bid to Duck Earthquake Safety Deadlines Threatens to Put More Patients At Risk

Press Release Press Release, 8/17/10

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For Immediate Release
August 17, 2010

Two of California’s most profitable hospitals are seeking further delays in meeting state requirements to ensure that their buildings will not collapse in an earthquake.

An 11th hour legislative maneuver today by Sen. Denise Ducheny would grant new seismic safety extensions to California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, which reported over $157.4 million in profits, and Stanford Hospital, which recorded $77.2 million in profits, according to data the hospitals reported to the state for their most recent fiscal year.

Ducheny’s SB 289, which was gutted and amended to include the new language, would give the hospitals five more years past the current deadline, until 2018, to meet seismic standards set by the state. The extensions will also benefit Cottage Grove Community Hospital in Santa Barbara, and Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee. 

All four have facilities that are rated to be among the most seismically dangerous.  CPMC has 12 buildings, and Stanford four, that would get the legislative gift of an extended deadline.

“It’s time for California to stop shielding big hospital corporations with new exemptions every year from protecting patients and hospital staff from injury or death in an earthquake because they put profits ahead of public safety,” said Malinda Markowitz, RN, co-president of the California Nurses Association, which opposes the Ducheny bill.

“In a year in which we have seen major earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, how many reminders do we need?  We live in a state where earthquakes have already caused hospitals to collapse or suffer major damage.  It is irresponsible for lawmakers to continue to hand new breaks to these hospitals, especially ones like California Pacific and Stanford which can well afford to make the seismic upgrades that are needed,” said Markowitz.

The California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD) uses risk classifications to determine which hospital buildings need most immediate attention to avoid collapse or major damage in an earthquake. More than 260 acute-care facilities, with over 800 buildings, have been identified as being in the higher-risk category.  Of the 800, OSHPD says only 130 are moving toward compliance.

The continually moving goal post

For nearly four decades, California hospitals have been on notice for seismic safety since a 1971 earthquake in Sylmar caused two big hospitals to collapse, with 45 people alone dying in the ruins of a Veterans Hospital. That led to the first bill in 1973 for seismic upgrades.

In 1994 new legislation was passed following another major quake in Southern California, mandating hospitals to comply with seismic safety standards by 2008. 

But hospitals have come begging to the legislature virtually every year seeking extension after extension, and with the help of industry allies like Ducheny, the deadline has been repeatedly delayed. 

Several years ago, SB 1661 authorized OSHPD to grant an additional two-year extension of the January 1, 2013 deadline. 

Then, a Ducheny bill last year, SB 499, granted hospitals that failed an arbitrary computer modeling reclassification called HAZUS an SB 1661 extension.  This handed hospitals an additional two years to comply, with the 2013 deadline.  

SB 499 also allowed OSHPD to begin the process of issuing emergency regulations to further water down the risk assessment under HAZUS in order to give more hospitals that would have formerly been classified as unsafe additional time to be brought up to safety standards.

This manipulation will result in the reclassification of up to 200 hospitals buildings – 40 percent of acute-care buildings that were in the highest risk category -- to avoid compliance with what was the 2013 deadline until 2030. 

 “Once again, it will be an early Christmas for these wealthy hospitals,” said Markowitz about Ducheny’s latest bill. “A hospital corporation’s failure to plan for future construction needs is no excuse to jeopardize the safety of patients and hospital employees by delaying the deadline again.”

“Every year we warn that the hospitals will be standing in line for another extension, and sure enough, here they are again. If a hospital has not complied since 1994, why do we believe they will ever comply?” Markowitz asked.

“California’s nurses know first hand the devastation that an earthquake can bring. As the experience in Haiti especially proved, the one building that Californians will most need standing following a serious earthquake is their community’s acute-care hospital, and we will continue to fight to demand that all these hospitals do what is needed to protect the public,” she said.

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