Hospitals ask utility for power : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Published Friday, March 23, 2001

Hospitals ask utility for power

Rolling blackouts pose health risk to patients and medical centers should be exempt, doctors say; PG&E to reveal decision next week


SAN FRANCISCO -- In response to rolling blackouts earlier this week that shut off power to several California health care facilities, hospital representatives lobbied the Public Utilities Commission on Thursday for exempt status during future blackouts, saying the unexpected power outages disrupt care and put patients at risk.

The hospital representatives argued that, though their backup generators provide enough power for critical hospital equipment, the generators are meant for emergencies and aren't sufficient to keep hospitals running smoothly during a blackout.

In the East Bay, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center facilities in Hayward and Martinez were among those hit by the outages this week. "There are hundreds of potential problems," said Patrick Johner, a vice president at Long Beach Memorial Hospital.

Johner pointed to seemingly simple logistics, such as having only one elevator at his hospital on emergency power. "All of the rest of the elevators would be inoperable. If you were just coming out of surgery (and got stuck in an elevator), you would be in dire straits," said Johner.

Other witnesses complained about computer data that would be lost and the loss of air conditioning critical for patient comfort and equipment functioning.

Dr. Allan Pont, chairman and program director of endocrinology and internal medicine at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, said he worried about the 10 seconds it takes for emergency generators to start. Doctors in surgery are left in the dark and patients in critical care left unmonitored for that time, said Pont.

None of the hospitals reported any fatalities during Monday's and Tuesday's blackouts. But the outages caught most off-guard. Several surgeries were in progress at Kaiser in Hayward when the lights went out."For those seven seconds, it was very black in those rooms. Fortunately, there was no bad outcome," said Barbara Cayere, director of patient care services.

Lawyers for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Edison said that including hospitals with backup generators in the recent rolling blackouts met 1982 guidelines set by the PUC. The guidelines state that customers with sufficient standby equipment should not be routinely protected from rotating outages. Before this week, PG&E and Edison had sought PUC clarification, but received none, said the lawyers.

Until Monday, rolling blackouts had not taken out power at any hospital, said David Huard, an attorney with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, which represents 500 hospitals in the California Healthcare Association. Soon after, the association requested an emergency hearing from the commission.

In response to questioning by Burton Mattson, an administrative law judge for the PUC, and Commissioner Carl Wood, who heard Thursday's testimony, the lawyers said they would not object to a new commission ruling exempting all hospitals from rolling blackouts. However, they expressed concern about other "essential" customers such as police, fire and air traffic control that also have backup generators and also might request exempt status during the blackouts expected this summer.

"We want the commission to be mindful that this is only the first request," said Dan Cooley, the attorney for PG&E. It was a prescient statement. Soon after, Nancy Armentrout, director of legislative affairs for the California Association of Health Facilities, requested the commission consider exempting long-term care facilities.

Armentrout said the sickest patients are often discharged to these facilities where the average age is 85. "We're concerned about the effect of outages on the state's elderly," she said.

Mattson said the commission will likely issue a decision about hospital exemptions by early next week.

Judy Silber covers the business of health care. Reach her at 925-977-8507 or

-- Swissrose (, March 24, 2001

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