Quake damage could cripple Calif. hospitals

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

In her series on earthquake preparedness at California hospitals, California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting senior reporter Deborah Schoch look at what she calls the “Achilles heel” of hospitals in earthquake territory: internal damage to pipes and equipment.

While much of the legislative focus has been on preventing structural damage, Schoch writes that recent seismic disasters in places such as Chile and Japan have demonstrated that a broken water pipe or sprinkler system can shut down a hospital every bit as effectively as a crumbled wall.

To better avoid internal damage, Schoch writes, hospitals need to bolt down equipment, anchor water tanks and set up back-up generators. According to Schoch, “Many facilities locally and statewide are still years or decades away from making those non-structural internal fixes, even though they are required under California law.” This is largely thanks to a variety of deadline extensions and loopholes requested by cash-strapped hospitals which refer to the law as the largest unfunded mandate in state history.

As of 2009, fully 1,357 hospital buildings statewide had not made fixes that should have been finished at the start of 2002, according to a December 2009 report from state regulators.

Another 1,233 buildings, or 95 percent of buildings statewide, had not yet done improvements that were due Jan. 1, 2013, according to the report. State officials caution that some hospitals may have completed upgrades, but they do not have up-to-date statistics.

In the second installment of the series, Schoch uses state records to show that more than 40 hospitals close to the fault are rated at high risk of collapse in a major earthquake.

California hospitals were supposed to have fixed hospitals by 2008 or the state would shut them down. But that deadline has been pushed back multiple times: “Championing the delays, the state Legislature repeatedly extended the 2008 deadline to 2013, 2015, even 2020, under pressure from hospitals that said they can’t afford the fixes.”

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