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Senate OKs Delays on Hospital Upgrades

Times Staff Writer

The California Senate voted Tuesday to give hospitals an additional 12 years to make their buildings safe from earthquakes. The measure would delay one of the main safety reforms enacted after the 1994 Northridge quake.

That temblor, which killed 57 people and injured thousands, also forced two dozen hospitals in the Los Angeles area to close or limit their services because of damage. Legislators quickly ordered California hospitals to ensure by 2008 that their buildings would not collapse from a major temblor, and to guarantee that by 2030 they were sturdy enough to continue operating after a quake.

But hospitals since calculated that the cost of retrofitting their buildings would be far more expensive than first thought, with one estimate exceeding $41 billion. Hospitals, many with mounting financial troubles that have led to the closure of costly emergency rooms, complained that the law would require them to perform massive overhauls twice.

“In many cases, hospitals were finding they were going to have to spend an enormous amount of money to meet the 2008 requirements, only to have to tear the building down to meet the 2030 requirements,” said Jan Emerson, a vice president of the California Hospital Assn.

Under the legislation sponsored by the association, all hospitals except those in the most precarious condition would no longer have to meet the 2008 standards if they agreed to finish all their safety renovations by 2020, a decade ahead of schedule. Supporters said it was a worthy trade-off and noted that no hospital had fallen down due to a quake since 1971.

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“No one has died in a hospital in California due to seismic safety or stability, but we have had over 7,000 patients who have died each year due to infections they acquired in the hospital,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough).

However, the California Nurses Assn. and the Service Employees International Union, which represent hospital workers, opposed granting a reprieve for hospitals, many of which they said had done little to prepare for the deadline despite more than a decade of notice. They said hospitals were exaggerating their financial troubles.

“We are in a state of denial,” said Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who voted against the measure. “California is earthquake country and we’re denying the inevitable. This is one where we’re saying to save a buck we’re willing to compromise safety.”

The Northridge earthquake showed that the hospitals most vulnerable to a major temblor were built before California created seismic standards two years after the 1971 San Fernando earthquake.

A 2002 study by the Rand Corp. found that the eight hospital buildings that sustained irreversible damage during the Northridge quake were constructed before 1970.

But other hospitals suffered substantial impairments, the study said. Olive View Hospital -- which had collapsed during the San Fernando quake -- had to be evacuated because of broken water pipes. Granada Hills Community Hospital had to evacuate its top floors and treat the injured in the parking lot and “debris-strewn hallways,” while five facilities in Santa Monica were declared unsafe for occupancy.

The Rand study concluded that about half of California’s hospital buildings will be retrofitted, rebuilt or closed to meet the requirements of the Northridge legislation.

There are 430 hospitals required to meet the law’s 2008 deadline, according to the hospital association.

State records show they include Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, UCLA Medical Center in Westwood, UCLA-Santa Monica Hospital Medical Center, Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, and Simi Valley Hospital & Health Care Services-Sycamore.

However, 175 hospitals have applied for or already received exemptions under that law that allows them to delay meeting the mandate until 2013. They include Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles, Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach.

The new bill, SB 167, passed the Senate 27 to 3 and now goes to the Assembly.

Also on Tuesday, legislators approved a variety of other bills, all of which also require agreement in the other legislative chamber.

Those bills would:

* Legalize the estimated 500,000 pet ferrets in California. The topic, which has been debated in each of the last 12 years in the Legislature, passed the Assembly 60 to 7. AB 647 by Assemblyman Paul Koretz, (D-West Hollywood) would require state wildlife officials to study whether the weasel-like creatures pose a significant risk to California’s native wildlife and if not, to legalize the animals as pets. Last year Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill even while declaring that he loved the furry species, to which a co-star in “Kindergarten Cop” belonged.

* Require that all food sold in elementary schools meet nutritional standards: specifically, that all but the most healthful food be sold only as part of a full meal and that snacks be made up of no more than 35% fat or sugar. The Senate passed SB 12 by Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) by a 23-12 vote.

* Require that at least half of the drinks sold in high schools be healthful. The bill, which was proposed by Schwarzenegger’s health department, defines healthful drinks as fruit- or vegetable-based beverages with no added sweeteners; drinking water without added sweetener; milk and “electrolyte replacement” beverages with limited added sweetener. SB 965 by Escutia passed the Senate by a 24-10 vote, with the governor’s fellow Republicans in opposition.

* Crack down on human slave trafficking, in which threats of violence are used to force people to work, often as prostitutes, farm laborers or maids. The bill would set civil and criminal penalties for human trafficking. The Assembly approved AB 22 by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) on a 53-8 vote.

* Ban mandatory overtime for state nurses who work in facilities such as mental hospitals, prisons and veterans’ homes. The measure is sponsored by the Service Employees International Union, which contends that the state uses overtime to make up for its failure to recruit and retain enough nurses. The Assembly approved AB 1184 by Koretz in a 44-34 vote.

* Address prison rape by requiring the state to train prison staff about sexual violence and follow certain procedures in investigating sexual abuse. AB 550 by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) passed the Assembly 51 to 27.

* Create a universal healthcare system in which the state would assume providing health insurance now handled by private firms. The bill does not include financing; the author, Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), plans to develop a combination of employer and personal income taxes to merge into the measure next year. The Senate passed SB 840 by a 24-14 vote.

* Improve monitoring of potentially toxic chemicals that can be absorbed in humans. SB 484 by Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) would require cosmetics manufacturers to inform state officials about any potentially dangerous ingredients in their products; it passed the Senate 22 to 13. SB 600 by Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) would create a statewide program to test for potentially toxic chemicals in the bodies of volunteers; it passed the Senate 21 to 13.

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Times Staff Writer Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.


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