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Articles / 2007

State panel to weigh new seismic regulations

Ventura County Star
Wednesday, 11/14/2007
By Michelle L. Klampe

The California Building Standards Commission will consider adopting new regulations that could effectively delay costly seismic updating for hundreds of hospitals at a meeting today in Sacramento.

More than 1,000 hospital buildings, including 18 in Ventura County, are classified as being at high risk for collapse in a major earthquake, according to a 2001 report by the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.

The high-risk hospital facilities are under a mandate to replace or repair their facilities or quit using the buildings for patient care by 2008, although many have sought and been granted extensions until at least 2013. A RAND Corp. study released this year estimated the total cost of the seismic work at $110 billion.

The mandate came as part of a major update of California's seismic safety law, the Alfred E. Alquist Facility Seismic Safety Act of 1973, after the 1994 Northridge quake. The earthquake damaged more than 100 hospital buildings.

The Building Standards Commission is being asked to adopt the use of new federally developed computer modeling software called HAZUS that uses a scientific approach to identify which hospital buildings pose the highest risk of collapse, factoring in the building's age, type of construction, soil composition, distance from a fault line and more.

The Hospital Building Safety Board, an advisory board to the Statewide Health Planning office, recommended in June that the regulations be adopted.

Use of HAZUS could lead to reclassification of about half of the facilities currently considered high risk, California Hospital Association officials said in a telephone press briefing Tuesday.

Some local officials suspect they could benefit from the change. Among them is Adam Thunell, chief operating officer for Community Memorial Health Systems, which operates Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura and Ojai Valley Community Hospital in Ojai.

Hospital in planning phase

The regulations aren't expected to alter plans for a new Community Memorial Hospital, a project in the planning phase now and expected to meet existing deadlines for seismic upgrades. But they could affect Ojai Valley, Thunell said.

"We think Ojai would drop down a couple of categories," he said. Ojai Valley is a single-story, wood-framed building that could be retrofitted instead of rebuilt if reclassified under the proposed regulations. If the hospital does not have to be rebuilt, CMH could invest that money on other aspects of the operation, Thunell said.

The new regulations also could give Simi Valley Hospital more time to address concerns about a building that houses patients receiving acute rehabilitation services, said spokeswoman Alicia Gonzalez. The hospital is building a patient tower expected to open next year.

Los Robles Hospital & Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, which just completed an expansion project, will continue to move forward with plans to build another wing to replace its patient facilities, said CEO Jim Sherman. That project is on schedule to be completed by 2015, which would meet current requirements, Sherman said.

Mike Powers, director of the Ventura County Health Care Agency, said it was unclear how the change in regulations might affect Santa Paula Hospital and Ventura County Medical Center. Some of VCMC's buildings are compliant with earthquake standards, but a 1950s patient wing needs to be retrofitted or rebuilt, Powers said. Santa Paula also needs retrofitting, he said.

St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard is a much newer facility and meets seismic safety standards. St. John's Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo is on track to begin construction of a patient tower in late 2010, with completion slated for early 2013, said spokeswoman Rita O'Connor.

A 2030 deadline date

If the proposed regulations are approved, reclassified facilities would likely have until 2030 to address seismic concerns. Adopting the regulations also would help ensure that government funding, if it becomes available, could be directed to hospitals at highest risk for collapse, Hospital Association officials said.

"We think it is addressing the hospitals that need to be addressed earlier," said Dan Gross, chairman of the association's board.

Specific information about which hospitals would benefit from reclassification would ultimately come from the Statewide Health Planning office. If the regulations are approved, that information could come as quickly as the end of the month, said Jan Emerson, vice president of external affairs for the California Hospital Association.

"A lot of hospitals do want to know this as soon as possible," she said, "because if they remain SPC-1 (the highest-risk classification), they have a very short time to reach compliance or they're going to have to shut the doors."