Ancient Egyptians first observed that only when we eliminate traditions do we discover why they first became traditions.
That’s a warning state officials must heed this spring, as they shape a sharply reduced state budget where many programs will likely be slashed or eliminated. To rephrase the Egyptians: Eliminate a state program and you eventually learn why it was set up. This can be a very hard lesson.
So it’s been this spring, as California coped with the many consequences of ex-Gov. Jerry Brown axing a $200 million program featuring sophisticated mobile stand-by hospitals complete with sleeping quarters for staff and a stockpile of ventilators during the budget-cutting festival he presided over after assuming office for the second time in 2011.
The process of eliminating the program — which received virtually no notice while it existed a decade and more ago — came to light via a joint investigation by the Los Angeles Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
This emergency ready-response program included three 200-bed tent hospitals that could be brought to disaster scenes anywhere in California on flatbed trucks and set up to provide care within 72 hours of receiving notice. Each covering an entire football field, they included X-ray machines and intensive care units.
The program and its elimination as an economizing measure puts the governorships of Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a new light.
Schwarzenegger, sullied by a long-ago affair with his housekeeper that was revealed right about the time he left office and Brown took over, is often remembered as a lightweight. But during the national avian flu outbreak of 2006, Schwarzenegger spurred his then cash-strapped state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for the portable hospitals.
“In light of the pandemic flu risk,” the once and future movie muscleman said then, “it is absolutely a critical investment. I am not willing to gamble with the people’s safety.” How right he was.
But Brown took precisely that gamble. Now it’s clear we all lost. In a classic penny-wise-and-pound-foolish move, he abandoned the program, seeing its most valuable equipment distributed to hospitals around the state, while its tens of millions of N95 facemasks and more than 2,000 life-preserving ventilators seem to have virtually dissolved.
Brown refused comment to the reporters who revealed this travesty. No wonder.
For he was a governor who reveled in a reputation for foresight, sagacity and parsimony. He traveled the world as the foremost American spokesman for fighting climate change once Donald Trump became president. He accepted full credit for solving the state’s budget crisis and producing repeated multi-billion-dollar surpluses after sponsoring a successful 2012 budget-balancing ballot proposition.
His refusal to discuss gutting the emergency hospital program is consistent with his repeated refusal to reveal private conversations and emails with utility executives while he and his appointees steadily favored them over customers in crises like the shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
He never acknowledged his obvious conflict of interest in dealing with utility issues while his sister earned hundreds of thousands of dollars as a board member of Sempra Energy, parent company of both the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and the Southern California Gas Co.
Brown somehow evaded most criticism for this.
But the worldwide coronavirus crisis now affecting every Californian has put the consequences of his action on the mobile hospitals — far from his biggest budget-cutting move — into bas relief.
With those hospitals up and running, perhaps Gov. Gavin Newsom would not have had to beg Trump to send the USNS Mercy hospital ship to Los Angeles. If the gear in the hospital program had been kept up, perhaps hospital nurses wouldn’t have had to use the same masks for entire days, rather than dumping and replacing them after visiting each of their patients.
So Brown lacked the foresight Schwarzenegger showed in setting up the program. Which means the ancient Egyptian warning is correct again: Years after this program was eliminated, we now know exactly why we needed it. That may make it high time to reevaluate the gubernatorial tenures of both Brown and Schwarzenegger.
Which ought to caution Newsom as the virus forces him to start slashing the state budget this spring.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]