Alison Dixon

California Hospitals Race to Comply with Seismic Safety Laws

In case you missed it, the California state government has set a deadline for hospitals to meet the seismic safety building standards set by SB1953. In their race against time, hospitals must minimize the risk of a collapse by next year, and ensure their buildings are safe to operate even after a massive earthquake by 2030.

SB1953 was placed into California law after the the 6.7 Northridge Earthquake back in 1994, which caused $25 billion in damages and dozens dead. This temblor also resulted in a turbulent time for hospitals in the state, as 11 hospitals were damaged while eight were evacuated. The quest for California hospitals’ safety from similar seismic dangers won’t be an easy one, as there are many obstacles in the way.

The Calm Before the Storm

California is a hotspot for earthquakes as it lies along a number of fault zones, but it’s been a relatively quiet time for the state. From 1969 to 1994, 32 earthquakes with a magnitude of 6 or higher occurred. In contrast, only 11 earthquakes at the same level were recorded in the last 25 years. The most recent deadly earthquake occurred in August 2014 in Napa Valley, which was a 6.0 on the Richter scale.

On the surface, things are seemingly serene, but scientists warn California’s citizens to be wary of the prolonged absence of major earthquakes because it means that a series of them could soon occur.

Elizabeth Cochran, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, explains, “We have a decade or two where we don’t have many earthquakes, and people expect that’s what California is always like.” She adds that soon enough, “we’re going to dramatically see a change in earthquake rates.”

Vice reveals this rise in earthquake rates could bring about the Big One, a hypothetical earthquake that is expected to strike through the San Andreas Fault. This covers over 750 miles of California, and is known for producing powerful earthquakes every 150 years. However, there hasn’t been any in the area for over 200 years. Experts believe that this delay in the San Andreas Fault will result in the Big One. However, what experts aren’t sure about is if hospitals state-wide would be able to meet the seismic safety standards when it strikes.

The Cost of Safety

With the inevitability of a major earthquake in the near future, the California Hospital Association recently funded a study to assess the state of seismic safety standards of the state’s hospitals. Results revealed that California hospitals would need to invest between $34 billion and $143 billion in upgrades to meet the preventive measures set by state law. This presents a huge problem, as although the 2020 expectations would most likely be met, many California hospitals fear they won’t be able to afford the cost for the 2030s.

Despite the urgent need to retrofit, complying with the criterion is an uphill struggle for many healthcare facilities in California. Out of over 418 general acute-care hospitals state-wide, 34% of them are in financial trouble. If they were to reach the 2030 deadline for the seismic safety building standards, that number would rise to 50%.

Of course, the financial pressure does not exist in a vacuum. It’s a stressful time overall, as Maryville University reports that the healthcare industry is facing a slew of challenges, such as increasingly complex healthcare systems and an impending shortage of practitioners. The failure to properly address the issue of seismic safety will only lead to even more concerns.

Given all this, seismic safety laws could possibly ruin hospitals even before the Big One hits, as hospitals run the risk of substandard nursing and medical facilities, understaffed medical personnel, and disgruntled patients.

The Health of California Hospitals

There have already been some casualties.

After 157 years of operating in Los Angeles, the Pacific Alliance Medical Center (PAMC) closed its doors because it wasn’t financially fit to meet the state’s seismic safety standards. The press release explained that the land the hospital is built on is leased and cannot be bought: “The hospital building does not meet current California seismic standards and it is not economically viable for us to invest nearly $100 million to build a hospital on land that we would not own.”

Meanwhile, Healdsburg District Hospital in Sonoma County is still up and running, and has a secure seismic rating. However, its officials worry it might suffer the same fate as PAMC. Properly retrofitting the 50-year-old facility would cost at least $15 million — a figure CEO Joe Harrington explains could instead “replace aging infrastructure, including a new HVAC system, new medical gas, an oxygen system, and bigger operating room suites.” He adds, “For twice that amount, the hospital could get a whole new inpatient wing and skilled nursing facility or a slew of facilities upgrades.”

California hospitals must make a tough choice in the coming years. Do they spend millions of dollars to rebuild and subsequently reduce their operating budgets, or do they shut down their facilities entirely?

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