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News Channel 3 Investigates: Seismic Deadline

The 1994 Northridge earthquake killed nearly 60 people and injured more than 9,000. The 6.7 magnitude quake destroyed or severely damaged tens of thousands of homes, apartments, and businesses, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

In addition, eleven hospitals suffered structural damage or became unusable. Not only were those hospitals unable to serve their local neighborhoods, they also had to transfer out patients, placing a heavier burden on nearby hospitals that were still operational.

In the aftermath, state lawmakers enacted Senate Bill 1953, known as the "Hospital Seismic Standards Bill" requiring all California hospitals to build new facilities or complete a retrofit by 2030 to remain fully operational in the event of an M8.0 earthquake.

"It's something that keeps us all up at night," said Dr. Conrado Barzaga, CEO of the Desert Healthcare District.

The Desert Healthcare District is a public entity that owns Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, which is operated by the company Tenet.

Barzaga said Desert Regional is one of 32 district hospitals throughout the state that need to be retrofitted and in need of money to pay for it.

"For Desert Regional Medical Center the cost is estimated to be between $120 and $180 million dollars," Barzaga said.

Of the hospital's 15 buildings, engineers said three need structural retrofits. In the main hospital, deficient walls need to be thickened and reinforced. In the east tower, there are deficiencies with frame beams, connections, and foundations. And in the north wing, there are similar deficiencies between beams and walls.

"So what could happen if you don't get this money?" Daut asked Barzaga.

"We have seen many of these public hospitals being shut down, because they could not afford to be retrofitted. And we don't want that to happen to Desert Regional Medical Center."

- Barzaga answered

Daut followed up by asking, "Do you really think realistically that the state would actually shut down this place for not being in compliance?"

"It is likely yes," Barzaga replied.

It has happened before. In 2018, the 94-year-old hospital Community Medical Center Long Beach closed after it was determined it would be unable to meet the state's seismic compliance regulations. The company that ran the hospital said the hefty cost of the upgrades made operating it unfeasible.

JFK Memorial Hospital in Indio and Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree are also operated by Tenet. But Tenet said both hospitals are mainly one-story buildings and much easier to upgrade than Desert Regional, and so the company will fund the necessary improvements.

"We cannot afford to have Desert Regional Hospital shut down."

- Assemblymember eduardo garcia

Garcia said now is the perfect time to ask for help, since the state has a nearly $100 billion budget surplus.

He recently wrote a letter to the legislature asking for a one-time expenditure of $1 billion to be shared by all the healthcare districts to help offset the costs to meet the requirements.

The request has received bipartisan support including from Assemblymember Chad Mayes (I) and State Senator Melissa Melendez (R).

Another factor the Desert Healthcare District has to consider is its lease with Tenet, which runs out in 2027.

Tenet said in 2019 it submitted a proposal to the district to buy the hospital, and take on the financial responsibility to make the necessary improvements.

Tenet is currently working with the district on meeting the requirements for the 2030 deadline. Unlike Desert Regional, Eisenhower Health is a private hospital, and several years ago completed its structural retrofits using tens of millions of dollars of donations.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are expected to make a decision on the budget-- and whether to allocate the $1 billion to public hospitals by the end of August.

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Peter Daut


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