In a bid to find another operator for a Long Beach medical center set to close down in July, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday urged state officials to extend a deadline for the hospital to meet earthquake safety requirements.
Supervisor Janice Hahn recommended sending a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and the county’s legislative representatives in support of Assembly Bill 2591, which would push the seismic retrofit deadline for Community Medical Center Long Beach from June 2019 to 2025. AB 2591 is sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, who represents Long Beach.
“It seems the seismic happening was not a real earthquake, but the announcement to close this hospital, which has sent shock waves through the community,” Hahn said.
MemorialCare Health System, the nonprofit group that operates the Long Beach hospital, announced March 5 that it would be shuttered in four months due to an inability to comply with state seismic requirements, citing an earthquake fault that runs directly below the site.
“We exhaustively explored all options to continue operations at Community Medical Center as an acute care hospital,” hospital CEO John Bishop said in the March statement. “This proved not possible since large portions of the facility would have to be demolished, resulting in a small, 94-year-old hospital with no more than 20 acute care beds, which would not allow for viable acute care operations.”
City officials say MemorialCare was well aware of the fault line and an estimated $16 million required safety retrofit when it bought the complex in 2011. The city had been looking for someone new to run the hospital, but was caught off guard by the timing of the announcement, according to Hahn.
MemorialCare executives say there is excess capacity of 800 beds, on average, at seven nearby hospitals.
However, the executive director of Community Hospital Long Beach Foundation, a nonprofit that has invested millions in the hospital, told the county board, “In an emergency, seconds matter.”
CHLB Foundation Executive Director Matthew Faulkner said the foundation has hired its own experts, who have concluded the hospital can be retrofitted to accommodate acute care patients.
Faulkner said the problem is bigger than Long Beach.
“Fifty percent of California hospital beds are in danger of disappearing if they do not comply with seismic requirements by 2030,” he said.
The retrofit deadlines have been debated — and extended — for more than a decade. The Alfred E. Alquist Seismic Safety Act first regulated “essential facilities” like hospitals in the wake of the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, in which at least 44 people were killed when the San Fernando Veterans Administration Hospital collapsed.
After the 1994 Northridge quake, state officials called on acute care hospitals to evaluate the stability of their facilities. Roughly 40 percent of California’s hospitals reported in 2001 that their buildings were at risk of collapse in a major temblor, according to the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.
The original deadline for acute care hospitals to meet a standard that would keep a building standing but might still leave it unusable after a quake was 2008.
But forcing cash-strapped hospitals to pay for structural improvements has proven difficult and extensions have been approved into 2020.
In fact, the deadline that AB 2591 seeks to reset is not for any actual construction work to be done, but for the hospital to file a request for a seven-year extension to meet legal requirements. Hahn said that would allow for an orderly transition to a new operator.
A public hearing on the planned closure is set for April 11 to give residents “a voice,” Hahn said, and to ensure that MemorialCare and Community Medical Center of Long Beach has complied with all the required notifications to its patients and plan enrollees.