New testing could aid hospitals in upgrade mandate

first_imgLOS ANGELES – California hospitals could get a break as they struggle to meet a deadline to renovate buildings in danger of buckling during a major earthquake. State regulators want to use advanced technology to re-evaluate 1,111 medical buildings – a move that could reduce the need for costly renovations by some facilities to comply with tough safety codes passed after the deadly 1994 Northridge temblor. “If buildings pose little or no risk to patients, then why impose millions of dollars of upgrades on them?” said Kurt Schaefer, deputy director of the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, which supports the new testing. No hospitals collapsed during the magnitude-6.7 Northridge Quake, but it disrupted care at two dozen medical centers and caused more than $3 billion in hospital-related damage. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE11 theater productions to see in Southern California this week, Dec. 27-Jan. 2After the disaster, the state’s 450 acute-care facilities were required to perform a first-ever inventory to identify shaky buildings. The 2001 survey found that 40 percent of hospital structures faced significant risk of collapse during a quake. The evaluations primarily considered the structure of a building, including whether it was made of wood or concrete. Some facilities ended up in the high-risk category by default because operators couldn’t afford to hire expert inspectors. State regulators are now turning to computer software used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assess risk from natural disasters. Many experts consider it more precise in predicting possible quake damage because it factors in a region’s seismicity, distance from an active fault and soil conditions. It’s unclear how the new tool might affect a hospital’s current seismic rating, but state officials said they expect some buildings now flagged as most at risk could receive a safety upgrade and extra time for renovations. The proposal to re-inspect buildings will likely require action by the state Legislature. Schaefer expects the state to perform the reassessment at no cost to the facilities. Under current state law, hazardous medical buildings must be retrofitted or replaced by 2008 or face stiff penalties. Facilities can win an extension until 2013 if they show the work will interfere with care. But the state is requiring that by 2030, all hospitals be able to keep treating patients after a disaster. The California Hospital Association has persistently lobbied for relief from the upgrades, complaining that hospitals could end up spending more than $50 billion because of skyrocketing construction costs. “We’ve got to balance access to care with the need to get hospital buildings upgraded to be able to sustain a major earthquake,” association spokeswoman Jan Emerson said. Sutter Health operates 27 hospitals in Northern California and has 78 buildings listed as high-risk. Its facilities in Sacramento and the Central Valley would likely benefit from re-inspection because they are in less seismically active zones, said Carl Scheuerman, company liaison to the state. “It allows us to focus our limited capital on those buildings that are most in need of action,” he said. The California Seismic Safety Commission, an independent group that advises the Legislature and governor on earthquake matters, supports the new system to better gauge seismic risk. However, Fred Turner, the panel’s senior structural engineer, cautioned that it is more accurate when assessing large areas than individual buildings. Nevertheless, Turner said it’s a good step. “We should have better smarts and tools at our disposal,” he said. The Northridge Quake killed 57 people while causing up to $20 billion in damage and exposing serious weaknesses in the health care system. One of the state’s worst hospital tragedies occurred during the 1971 Sylmar temblor when two medical centers in Southern California collapsed, killing 50 patients. During the Northridge Quake, the health care system was severely taxed. Eight hospital buildings erected before 1970 suffered heavy damage. Near the epicenter, the Northridge Community Center Hospital lost power and telephone service while doctors at the Community Hospital in Granada Hills were forced to treat patients in the parking lot and hallways after its top floor was evacuated.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more