NORTH HILLS — From the outside, the stately Sepulveda Veterans Administration hospital complex looks as if it weathered the Northridge earthquake fairly well.
Elderly veterans still stroll throughout its serene, campus-like grounds. Doctors, nurses and medical students bustle among offices and clinics. All of its brick-faced buildings are still standing.
But walk inside some buildings and it is clear that the 39-year-old federal medical center sustained heavy damage in the Jan. 17 quake.
The main hospital, Building 3, is uninhabitable, its corridors strewn with broken glass, damaged medical machinery and waterlogged chunks of ceiling. With dozens of pipes ruptured, there is no water service. The boiler room is unusable, depriving the hospital of heat.
As a result, most of the 331 patients evacuated on the day of the quake remain scattered among other VA hospitals in West Los Angeles, Long Beach and Loma Linda. So extensive is the damage that Congress recently appropriated $43.6 million just to clean up Sepulveda and reconnect its utilities.
But with that work under way, questions are being raised about the future of the hospital, which employs more than 1,700 people and has long been a center for geriatrics research and the training of medical interns and residents.
VA officials in Washington are quietly discussing whether to rebuild the 431-bed facility, at a cost of $188 million, or convert it into an outpatient care center. Conversion would carry a far smaller price tag of $119 million.
The debate has been joined by private hospitals in Los Angeles, which argue that given the thousands of empty hospital beds in the region, Sepulveda should not be rebuilt if its patients can be permanently absorbed at other VA facilities.
Veterans themselves, perhaps the most vocal and influential group in the controversy, are split on the issue. Some favor reconstruction while others say the hospital should change its focus from inpatient care to less expensive outpatient care.
Indeed, some veterans argue that the VA should take advantage of the quake damage to transform Sepulveda--as well as other hospitals in the nation's largest medical system--into a model of health care reform, keeping in step with the Clinton Administration's initiatives.
For six years, Sepulveda has been the site of a pilot outpatient program that proponents say could be extended to the entire, 172-hospital VA system. They argue that outpatient care makes more sense as the agency's budget shrinks and the veterans' population ages, creating a need for more long-term-care and fewer acute-care beds.
Some clinic services have reopened at Sepulveda, but Building 3 has been vacant since Jan. 17, when terrified patients were hurriedly evacuated by a small cadre of nurses and doctors.
Desperately gripping their mattresses, bedridden veterans were half-carried, half-dragged down several flights of darkened stairs as aftershocks swayed the six-story building and water from broken pipes cascaded into hallways.
By the time the shaking stopped, Building 3's three wings had split away from the core structure, as they were designed to. Rooftop heating and cooling machinery was wrecked. Operating rooms were littered with waterlogged equipment, packages of anesthesia masks and tubes of bone cement.
"We don't know how, when or if we're going to be salvaging millions of dollars of equipment," said the hospital's chief engineer, Ed Safdie, during a recent inspection of Building 3.
Much of the damage to Building 3 and its equipment was caused by flooding from broken water pipes. With maintenance workers initially preoccupied with helping to get patients out of the building, the sprinkler system was not turned off until more than five hours after the quake.
But the quake also caused extensive damage by knocking computers, expensive medical machinery, cabinets and other equipment to the floor.
Safdie said the VA appropriated $500,000 for internal bracing and anchoring of equipment at Sepulveda two years ago. But that money was diverted for additional waterproofing at the hospital after severe flooding hit the Valley in the winter of 1992.
A VA spokeswoman in Washington said a number of buildings at Sepulveda are likely to be retrofitted against earthquakes, but she didn't know what specific work would be done or how much it would cost.
Opened in 1955, the Sepulveda VA offered a range of hospital medical services as well as outpatient programs in primary care, substance abuse and mental health. It is also a teaching hospital affiliated with medical schools at UCLA and numerous other universities. Last year, 364 medical residents and interns trained at Sepulveda. The hospital's budget this year is $112 million.
Sepulveda conducts research on aging, drug and alcohol abuse, neurological disorders, heart disease and other problems. In 1993, more than $8 million was spent on research activities.