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Hospital Quake Repair Tab Put at $120 Million

Safety: Officials say Ventura County facilities will be hard pressed to pay for seismic retrofits by the state's deadline without financial assistance.

March 30, 2001|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It could cost Ventura County hospitals $120 million to meet state earthquake safety standards, administrators said Thursday.

Their estimates came one day after the state released a report saying that more than one-third of the county's hospital buildings would be at "significant risk of collapse" in a strong quake.

With many hospitals cash-strapped as a result of managed health care financing, executives at some say that paying for seismic retrofits by a 2008 deadline will be extremely difficult without government subsidy or other assistance.

Managers at others, such as Ojai Valley Community Hospital and Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, said their latest cost estimates are more manageable than they initially feared.

And while Ventura County Medical Center in Ventura is projecting a much higher estimate than in years past--up to $30 million--Health Care Agency Director Pierre Durand said that is still a cost the county can finance without an adverse effect on services.

No hospital in the county is predicting that it will have to shut down as a result of the higher standards, said Jim Lott, executive vice president of the Healthcare Assn. of Southern California.

"But you could wind up with smaller facilities and access problems" at some, he said. "There could be a loss of or a reduction in services."

This week, state officials released a report showing that one in three hospital buildings in California needs major repair to meet state earthquake-safety standards. It's slightly higher--38%--in Ventura County, according to the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.

All told, seven of the eight hospitals in the county contain at least one building that regulators say would pose a risk of collapse and a danger to the public should a strong earthquake occur.

The only general hospital exempt from these worries is St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, built in 1992 to meet modern safety standards. It is owned by Catholic Healthcare West.

Hospitals have until next year to tell the state how much needed improvements will cost. But many already have a good sense of the tab--and what sort of squeeze it could put on them.

"This could not come at a worse possible time," said Michael Bakst, executive director of independently owned Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura. "You're looking at hospitals that are barely doing OK that are now going to have to take on significant debt service. You're looking at multiple millions of dollars of construction."

Bakst estimated retrofitting costs at Community Memorial, where four of nine buildings need work, at $45 million to $50 million. The tab is so high that the hospital is looking at simply rebuilding.

"We don't feel that our hospital is unsafe, but state law is state law, and we have to find a way to comply with it," he said.

Either way, Bakst said, the hospital can't cover the costs on its own.

"We'd need some assistance," he said. "We don't have $50 million we can put our hands on."

At Simi Valley Hospital, spokeswoman Alicia Gonzalez said the latest estimate on retrofitting six of 10 buildings, including the intensive care unit, obstetrics wing and administrative offices, was more than $30 million.

The hospital has asked its parent corporation, Adventist Health, to pick up most of the tab. But the details have yet to be ironed out, and the hospital expects that it will need to throw fund-raising events as well.

At Ventura County Medical Center, one of seven buildings falls into the significant risk category. That structure, built in 1954, contains the center's radiology department and other patient care facilities.

"Our issue is one we can manage," Durand said. "It's not like an imminent crisis that will stop service for us."

At Los Robles Regional Medical Center, owned by Hospital Corp. of America, two of five buildings need retrofitting, but the cost should not exceed $8 million, spokeswoman Kris Carraway-Bowman said. "We're lucky" compared with other hospitals, she added.

Ojai Valley Community Hospital, which occupies only one building, needs retrofitting as well.

A design firm recently told the hospital that the improvements were expected to cost $1 million to $2 million, not the $3.3 million predicted earlier. The small nonprofit hospital can handle that cost, but help from the state would make it much easier, spokesman Craig Lewis said.

Two of independently owned Santa Paula Memorial Hospital's five buildings fall into the significant risk category.

And at St. John's Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo, also owned by Catholic Healthcare West, one of five buildings must be retrofitted.

Officials at those hospitals could not be reached for comment.

The California Healthcare Assn. is lobbying in Sacramento for $5 billion in bonds to help hospitals statewide meet the deadline. But the immediacy of the energy crisis may put hospital construction on the back burner, Lott said.

"Tough choices have to be made, and 2008 doesn't seem like a 'today' problem for anyone," he said. "It won't be until that issue is managed before we can see something occur on seismic safety."

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