As published as an editorial in The Hartford Courant, July 8, 2007.

Do Hospital Study Right

Legislators were right to authorize $400,000 for a comprehensive study of a plan to expand John Dempsey Hospital at the University of Connecticut Health Center. The state Office of Health Care Access is the appropriate agency to supervise the study because its role is to oversee hospital expansion and it has data about the need for beds.

In last-minute budget negotiations, that responsibility was shifted to the Office of Legislative Management. The change, according to Denise Merrill, head of the Appropriations Committee, was made by legislative leaders to cut spending of the projected 2007 surplus and was not intended to bypass the Office of Health Care Access as a partner in the study.

Ms. Merrill, whose district includes UConn, was singled out for criticism by a colleague who implied the switch was made in secret. Ms. Merrill defends herself persuasively. She said she did not take part in the decision and explained the change on the record to her colleagues on the House floor before the budget vote.

The study itself will be done by the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering, a private, nonprofit organization modeled after the National Academy of Sciences. That is a good choice because the study calls for an examination of the impact of the medical school and its research function as well as the hospital expansion.

The 200-member organization is composed of experts in science and technology and was set up to provide unbiased advice to the legislature. It has ably counseled legislators on proposals ranging from math education to stem cell research.

According to Ms. Merrill, the academy already had been allocated $200,000 for other work it may do under the supervision of the Office of Legislative Management. So in an effort to spend less, half the surplus money set aside for the UConn study was cut and half shifted to the academy account under the legislative supervisory agency. Ms. Merrill said she was surprised at the negative reaction.

She shouldn't be. UConn's proposal to replace Dempsey with a new $490 million facility is opposed by a coalition of major hospitals. It came on the heels of mistrust over UConn's handling of its building program, and a large deficit that required a bailout of the medical school.

An objective study is essential to determine whether Connecticut can support the extra beds. Its credibility rides on everything being done above board.

Ms. Merrill said some of her colleagues believed the Office of Health Care Access has a conflict of interest because it will eventually rule on whether the hospital plan can proceed. But it is the agency's role to make these key assessments.

Whoever oversees the process also has the responsibility to make sure that the study takes into consideration the special nature of the medical school, its research function and its role in training doctors who will staff many of the health care institutions in the state. Dempsey administrators argue that without the expansion, their ability to attract top students will diminish.

Meanwhile, some legislators vow to restore the study bill's original language tapping the Office of Health Care Access to work with the academy on the study. That would alleviate any concern that strings were pulled behind the scenes. If the Dempsey proposal is a good one, the study will lead to that conclusion.