As California trembles, Newsom, hospitals call for delay on earthquake safety upgrades

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Patients are resting in the shade after being evacuated from Ridgecrest Regional Hospital following a 6.4 earthquake in 2019. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

An hour after a 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck northern California on Thursday, the California Hospital Assn. tweeted that it was “time to update the seismic standards – to focus on all the services people need after a disaster of any kind”.

But the association’s tweet omitted that its proposal circulating in the State Capitol would actually weaken existing standards, giving hospitals an additional seven years – until 2037 – to ensure their buildings remain operational after the Big One and limiting the upgrades needed to buildings that support emergency services. .

The tweet also did not mention that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, in private negotiations at the State Capitol, had supported the association’s demand for more time to do less work, according to several sources involved in the negotiations. discussions in Sacramento that weren’t allowed to talk about them. Newsom’s office declined to comment.

Debates over hospital building standards are not new to California. This time around, they have resulted in an impasse between some of the most powerful forces in state politics: unions and hospitals.

The effort to delay legally required seismic upgrades at California hospitals is one of the few remaining issues to be addressed before Newsom and the legislature can reach a long-delayed final state budget deal for the fiscal year which began on July 1.

Hospitals represented by the association argue that existing seismic standards are too expensive, in some ways unnecessary, and their industry needs more time to recover from massive financial losses during the pandemic.

In a letter to legislative leaders late last month, the association claimed that even with federal help, California hospitals lost $ 8 billion in 2020 to treat COVID-19 patients and expect to lose. An additional $ 2.2 billion this year.

Current law requires that by 2030 every hospital building be able to function after an earthquake.

Without action on his proposal, according to the association, the current standard “would drain more billions of dollars from hospitals and – if left unchecked – is likely to result in hospital closures across the state.”

The association said its proposal could significantly reduce the estimated $ 100 billion it would cost to complete the earthquake improvements in California.

“This is an important step for hospitals,” said David Simon, spokesperson for the California Hospital Assn. “We have learned a lot from the pandemic, and flexibility is important, and it is important to focus limited resources on emergencies. “

Simon said Newsom sided not with the hospital association but with sound policy.

“I think the governor is building on the lessons of the pandemic to craft good policy going forward,” Simon said. “It is not a question of security. It is a question of what services are necessary and important during a disaster. What the governor does is recognize that a modern and rigorous policy is necessary, rather than operating every building after a disaster. “

Democratic legislative leaders have made it clear that any deal to change seismic standards will require union support. A large workforce contingent that includes the California Labor Federation, California Nurses Assn., SEIU California, the State Building and Construction Trades Council and others remain opposed to the hospitals’ proposal.

Steve Smith, spokesperson for the California Labor Federation, said delaying implementation of the law only increases the likelihood of a major earthquake occurring before upgrades are complete. .

“We know a great earthquake is coming,” Smith said. “We know this is likely to happen sooner rather than later. It is unreasonable that hospitals do not try to meet a deadline set decades ago.

Smith said labor groups opposed to the changes “are engaging the legislature and the governor’s office on why this is a horrible idea.” He said every time a governor steps in, it brings new urgency to a proposal.

“Obviously, we have concerns about the proposal,” Smith said. “The California Hospital Association. We’ve been pushing this for a long time, and we’re making an especially hard effort right now. “

Sources involved in the negotiations said the hospital association and the governor’s office tried to link the delay in seismic upgrades with a push by workers to create the Office of Healthcare Affordability, which was included in Newsom’s initial budget proposal and would set targets for healthcare. costs.

Union advocates say rising health care costs continue to be a problem for workers. The Health Care Affordability Office would be housed within the Statewide Office of Health Planning and Development and comprised of state union workers.

But labor groups refused to back the hospital association’s call to change building standards, even if it means the Office of Health Care Affordability is suspended.

Thursday, the California Building Trades Council reiterated his opposition to “delay the necessary seismic renovations”.

“Now is not the time for another disaster,” the group wrote in a photo on Twitter showing the collapse of Olive View Medical Center in the Sylmar earthquake in 1971, which triggered state law on seismic standards for new hospital buildings.

The hospital association spokesperson called the tweet “frustrating” and said it was unfair.

More than 95% of the state’s hospital buildings meet seismic standards under a 1994 law to ensure none of them collapse during a major earthquake. This law was passed after the Northridge earthquake that year, which caused severe damage to hospitals. The remaining hospitals that did not meet this standard will be updated by 2025, the association said.

A separate standard under the same law – requiring that by 2030 hospital buildings be able to provide services and remain operational after an earthquake – is what the association seeks to delay and reduce. The association said nearly two-thirds of California hospitals failed to meet the target.

“We are focusing on the services that need to be up and running in the event of a disaster,” said Simon. “Does it really need to be everything? Do plastic surgery suites have to be necessary to be operational?”

According to the hospital association’s proposal, only emergency and related services needed during a disaster would be required to submit to additional seismic standards, with an additional seven years to comply.

Previous efforts to change the requirements of the law, including a bill last year, failed in the legislature.

“What’s different this time around, and what’s unfortunate, is that the hospital association is taking a failed legislative attempt and using the budget process for its end goal,” said Stephanie Roberson, a California Nurses Assn lobbyist. . “The process is being abused here. The legislator has spoken. There should be a screeching halt.

With Newsom’s recall election on the horizon, the governor’s support for the association’s request to delay the work could backfire in the short term, said Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at the San Jose State University.

Gerston, who is writing a book on the recall, said his supporters combed Newsom’s track record and day-to-day activities to use anything that might support the argument they are making to the public that the governor cannot not trust.

“Once that becomes public, I think these guys are going to jump on it, not as a problem, but another example,” Gerston said. “They keep stinging, and Newsom helps them sting. There have just been a bunch of unforced errors, and they’re getting ahold of every one of them.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.



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