In the midst of bleak economic times, the business of hospital construction has been a rare boon to local and regional workers.

Nearly every hospital in the South Bay has a major construction project in progress or set to begin shortly, including a new seven-story inpatient tower at Torrance Memorial Medical Center - described as one of the largest projects ever in Torrance - and new buildings at Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center in Harbor City and County Harbor-UCLA Medical Center near Torrance.

In the South Bay alone, roughly $1.5 billion will be spent on various projects over the next few years. Across the state, at least $23 billion in hospital construction is planned, creating 223,000 jobs and

$1.7 billion in additional state and local tax revenue, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

The flurry of work is being driven by new seismic requirements in California, along with health care reform, new developments in technology and the need for more capacity because of the state's rapidly aging population, hospital officials say.

"We are growing, and we want to be able to meet the needs of our patients," Dr. Douglas Killion, area medical director for Kaiser South Bay, said during a recent tour of the hospital's roughly 36-acre campus along Pacific Coast Highway and Vermont and Normandie avenues. "We see that as a positive."

The Harbor City hospital will break ground this month on a new four-story inpatient North Hospital that will house 140 beds. A new parking structure is already complete, and officials will soon mark the opening of its four-level Coastline building that will house ambulatory care and 68 patient beds.

This winter, two 1950s-era medical buildings that do not meet seismic code will be demolished. Most hospitals have to replace or retrofit all buildings used for inpatient care by 2015.

Killion said significant construction projects also are under way or in planning stages at nine of 12 Kaiser medical campuses in Southern California, driven largely by seismic regulations and new growth. Kaiser expects an increase of 1.4million members throughout the region by 2020.

Much of the growth at Kaiser and elsewhere is because of health care reform, which will be fully in effect by 2014. For the first time, health insurance will be a requirement, either through private insurers, Medi-Cal or other public programs for children and families.

The health law is a driving force behind major projects undertaken by Los Angeles County, which alone is spending $722 million on new buildings at Harbor-UCLA and Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center in Willowbrook.

Work has begun on a new emergency department and surgical center at the Torrance-area hospital, expected to be complete in the summer of 2013. A multiphased project at the new MLK medical park will include a 120-bed inpatient hospital, new multi-service ambulatory care center and a public health building that opened this fall.

These two county projects alone will create roughly 10,000 jobs, and leaders have required contractors to hire workers from the local area.

Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, which sits on the campus of Harbor- UCLA, also is at work on a new Chronic Disease Clinical Research Center and has begun a $70 million fundraising campaign for two additional research buildings.

The potential for jump-starting job growth in the sluggish construction sector prompted officials from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. to urge faster approval of hospital projects at the state level.

As part of the state's cost-cutting measures, Gov. Jerry Brown enacted a hiring freeze and furloughs that hampered the ability of the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development to get projects through the pipeline. The freeze for OSHPD was lifted in May, allowing the department to fill an additional 26 positions.

"Once the (economic development corporation) calculated how valuable such an exemption would be for the state and our construction industry, we incited leaders in Sacramento to do everything to make this a reality," said Bill Allen, chief executive officer of the corporation. 

Officials at OSHPD said the recent glut of work moving forward may be because of the pent-up inventory of projects that had been waiting for approval before last spring. Since then, $4.4 billion worth of projects has been approved, said Paul Coleman, deputy director of facilities development for the state agency.

"The division has really made a great effort to do what we need to do to get these projects through," he said. "We're pretty much back on track."

The state acts similar to a local planning agency for inpatient hospital construction because of the stringent and complex requirements that must be met, Coleman said.

Hospitals, for example, must have sophisticated ventilation and filtration systems to prevent infection, along with special electrical requirements in case of power failures. State inspectors are involved at every stage of the process, and take months to check facilities before they can open to patients.

Because of the strict requirements and the time it takes to build medical facilities, the American Hospital Association estimates that hospitals spend about $1.5 million to $2 million per bed.

The improvements at the South Bay Kaiser will cost about $440 million, which comes from patient fees that are reinvested back into the nonprofit hospital, Killion said.

"We plan for this very carefully, and we have to do the work in phases," he said.

Like other projects in the works around the South Bay, the new buildings will incorporate the latest in hospital technology and design, including new bedside diagnostic tools and tablet devices that allow for more mobility and efficiency. Kaiser also has invested heavily in its electronic medical records system and Web resources for patients.

"The delivery of health care is changing," Killion said. "We are trying to accommodate for our needs now and into the future."

melissa.evans@dailybreeze.com

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