Hospitals paying big for seismic work

Aftershocks from the Northridge earthquake of 1994 are still being felt by local hospitals, which are spending millions of dollars to meet seismic standards deadlines enacted just five weeks after the destructive temblor.

Glendale Adventist Medical Center estimates it will spend roughly $240 million — most of that in the form of a new tower — to meet standards state legislators set in February 1994, with deadlines of 2013 for hospitals to ensure higher levels of safety for buildings housing patients.

"What we have spent to date on our new towers and what we are continuing to spend is in the neighborhood of $240 million," said Warren Tetz, chief operating officer of Glendale Adventist. "It is much more than anyone anticipated, and at a time when the hospital industry is having difficulties."

The California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, which oversees the seismic compliance effort, says $20-billion worth of reinforcement work is being planned or completed by hospitals around the state.

The agency lists 360 hospital buildings still requiring work, including one at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center and two at Glendale Adventist.

Glendale Adventist demolished a building constructed in 1955 and has since opened a new west tower, where the final touches are being completed. Tetz said the silver lining to the financial cloud was that his hospital, and others, managed to improve services while meeting the requirements.

"The west tower opened in the fall of 2007 and was a significant upgrade to our services," Tetz said. "We expanded our emergency department dramatically. We also added a surgical ICU and got new technology in that has driven our success in our cardiac and our neurological rehabilitation programs, as well."

Other local hospitals have also spent millions, but have been hit much less hard. Newer facilities generally have had a much easier time than medical centers built before earthquake safety standards became commonplace.

At Glendale Memorial Hospital, officials estimate the overall cost of seismic upgrades at about $7 million. Verdugo Hills Hospital representatives said they've spent $2.5 million.

Providence St. Joseph completed the bulk of its seismic work in 2007, after demolishing an older building on the northeast part of the campus and replacing it with a new one, spokeswoman Patricia Aidem said. One other building on the grounds does not meet state code, but Aidem said the facility is used for offices and does not house patients.

Amy Okin, a spokeswoman for Glendale Memorial Hospital, said the improvements have cost about $7 million.

"We have already completed upgrades necessary to ensure ongoing operations of central medical and mechanical systems, secure falling hazards and to ensure the security of pathways out of the hospital in the event of an earthquake," she said. "Other structural upgrades to the facility will be completed by 2012."

At Verdugo Hills Hospital, Vice President of Human Resources Paul Celuch said the price tag will be between $2 million and $2.5 million.

"The difference between us and other hospitals is we are a newer facility," Celuch said. "Verdugo Hills was built in 1972, and built on bedrock. All the additions we have made since the original construction have been in compliance" with state standards.

"We are definitely not off the hook, though," he added.

Construction of a sheer wall in one building will soak up most of the expected costs, though Celuch emphasized the work would take place several floors below where patients are housed.

Tetz and Celuch said the current economy has created a silver lining for hospitals working to meet the standards: Construction costs are dropping as contractors scramble for work.

"We haven't bid the work yet," Celuch said. "We've just gotten estimates. Some hospitals have found the cost to build has dropped by 20%" from original projections.

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