In summary

Delays and exemptions sought by hospital lobbyists undermine legislation designed to upgrade buildings and ensure that communities can get care after an earthquake.

By Cathy Kennedy, Special to CalMatters

Cathy Kennedy is a registered nurse and president of the California Nurses Association, executiveoffice@calnurses.org.

The horrifying collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Florida last month that killed at least 95 people is a reminder of how frail a seemingly sturdy structure can suddenly become.

In California, we have also seen large buildings fall with deadly consequences, most often when the ground starts shaking. When the edifice is a hospital, it is a double calamity, affecting not only patients, visitors and families buried by the tremor, but everyone in the community who loses access to their now incapacitated hospital.

A 1971 earthquake in northern Los Angeles County killed 64 people, 49 of them at the Veterans Administration hospital in Sylmar. Two decades later, the 1994 Northridge earthquake forced indefinite closure of three Los Angeles hospitals because of structural damage. Dozens of others sustained such severe battering they had to evacuate patients.

In the wake of the Northridge quake, California lawmakers decided the threat to public safety was too great and finally passed Senate Bill 1953, legislation mandating two new standards, with deadlines: that hospital buildings shore up risk of collapse in an earthquake; and that they be fully functional to provide care after an earthquake. 

Seismic safety, however, has never been a higher priority for hospitals than their profit goals. The hospitals’ lobbying arm — the California Hospital Association — has successfully pressured lawmakers to move the goal posts on deadlines for compliance. With its enormous economic influence in the Capitol, CHA has won multiple delays, and is now attempting to push for another one. It wants to change the 2030 deadline for providing post-quake care to 2037 and exempt “only those buildings that provide emergency services” — as if patients, hospital workers and other members of the public don’t count when buildings offering nonemergency services crush them.

That indifference was evident in a CHA tweet after a July 8 shake. It boasted that “today’s quakes show that hospitals are always standing, always safe, always ready and always here for patients” – disregarding memories of Sylmar and Northridge.

Adding insult to injury, the tweet said that it is “time to update seismic standards” — its euphemism for demanding another postponement, a bit of hubris the Los Angeles Times characterized as “more time to do less work.”

The pretext for the latest delay? The same as it’s ever been — a disingenuous claim of financial woe for a California hospital industry that has recorded over $102 billion in profits in the past 20 years, including $79.9 billion in the last decade and $47.2 billion in the past five years. The argument this time? The cost of Covid-19 patients.

Two big hospital chains tell a different story. In 2020, Kaiser Permanente reported $6.35 billion in income. HCA Healthcare reported $3.8 billion in 2020 profits. Additionally, California hospitals overall received more than $5 billion combined from the federal Medicare program in direct aid, plus over $8 billion in pandemic-related loans. 

While CHA’s first maneuver to squeeze the delay it seeks into the recently passed state budget failed, it continues to push the governor and legislators to find another avenue, presumably through amending or replacing other legislation.

The California Nurses Association, State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, California Professional Firefighters, California Labor Federation and others representing health care workers, emergency responders, patients, safety engineers and retirees, oppose any rollback, extended timeline or other weakening of seismic standard, and we encourage others to urge state legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom to do the same.

From Sylmar to a high-rise condo in Florida, we need to keep the human toll of a building collapse front and center. The corporate hospital industry does not need another waiver on seismic safety that will leave Californians unprotected.

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