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Community Hospital’s Oldest Building Proves Crucial To ER’s Future

With its arches, large windows and center fountain, the courtyard of Community Hospital is a prime example of the Mission Revival architectural style that came to define the historic cores of many Southern California cities. When the hospital’s original building was constructed in the 1920s, no one was aware of the fault line beneath that would threaten the institution’s survival a century later. Yet, it’s this legacy building that will likely save Community Hospital from becoming obsolete, and preserve what many have considered its most valuable aspect: the acute care unit.

Seismic compliance issues, mainly related to the complex’s newer buildings and onsite power plant, require costly retrofitting – a necessity that caused the hospital’s most recent operator, MemorialCare Health System, to throw in the towel. When the hospital closed in July 2018, the city’s efforts to find a new operator were already well underway, and a month before the closure, Molina, Wu, Network (MWN) LLC emerged as the chosen bidder for the project. On March 12, 2019, the city entered an interim lease agreement with MWN, enabling the company to seek out state permits and negotiate a long-term contract to operate the hospital and its emergency room.

“We’ve entered an interim agreement because we’ve got to keep the hospital license in effect. But we’re not that far off from doing a full-blown lease,” MWN’s John Molina told the Business Journal. Molina said his experience of working with the city has been very positive. “So far, I’m ecstatic. I could not have asked for more support.” Molina and his brother, Dr. Mario Molina, are partners in MWN. Both are former top executives of Long Beach-based Molina Healthcare, which was founded by their father.

Support from the city has come in a number of ways. The interim agreement that was recently signed by both parties includes a commitment by the city to pay for half of the anticipated $50 million necessary to bring the complex up to code with seismic safety. The city has not yet determined a funding source, but is expected to do so as the two sides solidify a long-term agreement, according to the city’s director of financial management, John Gross. Should the cost of the required retrofitting surpass $50 million, MWN would be financially responsible for the remaining costs.

This public-private partnership and the cost-share that is baked into it has sparked some criticism. “It’s come up a couple of times, people say: ‘Well, why is the city paying for this?’” Molina noted. But, he pointed out, four other bidders dropped out of the bidding process because they didn’t think the project was financially viable. “If our group did not step in to take over and agree to fund half of the seismic and all of the startup operational cost, then the city would have no operator.” In the agreement, MWN also promised to invest $40 million to remedy the results of deferred maintenance, purchase equipment and use as operating capital.

In addition to the financial contribution of $25 million, which is being spread out over 20 years, city staff is working with the state to secure the permits required to reopen the hospital. The interim agreement between the city and MWN was a necessary step to acquire the state permits, Long Beach Economic Development Director John Keisler explained during a March 12 city council meeting. “It provides state regulatory and legislative agencies with a plan to reopen and rebuild the facility,” Keisler said. “This will be essential as they’re considering our licensing, our operating, our business and financing plan. And it will provide time for both parties to negotiate detailed terms of the agreement, while the hospital reopens to the public.”

The facility’s seismic retrofit is still in its planning stages, but some elements of the plan have already crystallized. The legacy building, which was rated the safest in the event of an earthquake according to the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development’s standards, will likely be used to host the acute care unit, Molina said. Newer buildings – like the tower – may be used for ancillary services, such as behavioral health and addiction treatment, areas of need identified by the city’s task force on homelessness.

Long Beach Fire Chief Xavier Espino said his department welcomes both the planned reopening of the only emergency room on the city’s east side and additional resources for their Homeless Education and Response Team (HEART) team. “It would be very beneficial to the fire department at large to have another acute care center on the east side of town,” Espino said. “It would assist us, obviously, with some decreased response times and accessibility.”

Acute care units fall under stricter seismic standards than other hospital uses, and the legacy building needs retrofitting to comply with those standards. The main issue is the facility’s onsite power plant, which needs to remain safely connected to the acute care unit during an earthquake. Currently, the two parts of the complex are separated by an active fault line, threatening the connection should the earth begin to tremble.

“The issue of the power plant is being resolved, because we’re just going to relocate the power plant,” Molina explained. “One of the other things we’re going to undertake during the construction is somehow uncoupling the legacy building from the tower. I’m not exactly sure how it’s done – I’m not an engineer nor a contractor – but that was the other big piece. So that’s what we’re working on, starting today.”

Before the hospital can reopen, the city and operator MWN need to check off a number of boxes to ensure compliance with state regulations. Staff from both sides are working to initiate a General Acute Care Relicensing Survey, an inspection by the California Department of Public Health to ensure basic compliance with state requirements for acute care units. Another important step is to gain an extension of seismic compliance from OSHPD to allow the hospital to reopen while the lengthy retrofitting process takes place.

During the March 12 city council meeting, Long Beach Manager of Government Affairs Diana Tang said those next steps should be completed within a month. “This project has been a couple of months in the making – a little over a year – but we have been working very diligently every single day and every moment has counted,” Tang told the city council. “Those two are critical steps. If we don’t meet those deadlines, then we’ve got a problem. But I am confident that we will.”

Staff did not announce a projected reopening date, citing pending state approval, but according to a timeline presented by Keisler, the city and MWN are hoping to finalize a long-term agreement in April, and the re-hiring of hospital staff could start as early as May.

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