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Bill seeks further delays in retrofitting hospitals;

LAWMAKER SAYS MANY FACILITIES CAN'T AFFORD TO MEET STANDARDSSan Jose Mercury News (California)

Having already extended a deadline to make California's hospitals safer during an earthquake, state Sen. Jackie Speier wants to push it further into the future -- this time to 2020.

On Wednesday, Speier, D-San Mateo, announced legislation to ease strict hospital quake safety standards first passed in 1994, after the Northridge earthquake damaged hospitals so severely they had to close.

Those standards call for hospitals with inpatient beds to assure by 2008 that they could stay standing during a major earthquake.

By 2030, hospitals would need to comply with even stronger seismic safety codes to assure they could provide normal services after an earthquake. Hospitals that could not meet the new standards would face closing or conversion to outpatient care.

The price tag for all this retrofitting has been estimated between $21 billion and $41 billion. Of about 430 California hospitals, 366 did not meet standards set for either 2008 or 2030, according to a state study conducted in 2001.

Speier's bill, SB 167, would eliminate the 2008 deadline and a later 2013 extension for retrofitting if hospitals will commit to making all necessary structural improvements by 2020, 10 years earlier than the original final deadline. However, there is no penalty in the proposed law if hospitals renege on their commitment. Speier said that could change as her bill moves through the Legislature.

Flanked by hospital lobbyists, Speier said Wednesday that hospitals simply cannot afford the expensive rebuilding the state requires.

''Many of our hospitals are already on life support,'' Speier said.

She noted that no one in California hospitals has been hurt in an earthquake since 1971, when two hospitals collapsed during the Sylmar quake in Southern California, killing 50 patients. Her priority, Speier said, is to assure financial stability to avoid closings that reduce Californian's access to health care.

The bill is supported by the California Hospital Association and the California Association of Healthcare Districts, which represents public district hospitals such as El Camino Hospital in Mountain View. Some hospitals have said that it would be more cost-efficient to do one set of retrofits, rather than duplicating work necessary to meet several deadlines. But the California Nurses Association will probably oppose the bill, said spokesman Chuck Idelson.

"We should remember the original purpose of the safety standards,'' Idelson said. ''Having hospitals fall on patients and the doctors and nurses who work there is not something we believe should be promoted.''

Numerous hospitals in the quake-prone Bay Area are already retrofitting, or plan to completely rebuild their facilities. Some hospital officials said Wednesday that even if Speier's bill became law, it wouldn't necessarily change their plans.

Kaiser-Santa Clara's replacement hospital is already well under way. In Burlingame, the Peninsula Medical Center will continue to build a $420 million replacement hospital on its current site.

''We know this is not a safe building,'' spokeswoman Margie O'Clair said of the existing hospital, noting that it is 50 years old. The legislation, however, might ease the strain on hospitals who are competing for construction workers and materials, O'Clair said.

Glenna Vaskelis, president of Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, said her hospital is pushing ahead with a $130 million retrofitting project regardless of whether deadlines may ease.

''I can understand why she's doing it,'' said Vaskelis of Speier's bill. ''The price tag for hospitals throughout the state is pretty large, and it's probably going to force some hospitals to close. This may be a prudent way to stretch resources.''

But consumer activist Jamie Court questioned why Speier was giving hospitals ''a pass.''

''This is one big huge favor for the hospital industry,'' Court said. ''If some hospitals want to claim poverty, maybe there should be an option for an extension. But some hospitals are making a killing. They should put some of that money back into hospitals to make them safe.''
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Contact Barbara Feder Ostrov at bfeder@mercurynews.com