As published as an editorial in the New London Day, March 15, 2007.

Dempsey Hospital Debate

The University of Connecticut contends that a new John Dempsey Hospital must be built in Farmington if the university wants to continue offering a top-notch medical education program. The current, 32-year-old hospital is too small and its facilities too outdated, the school claims.

The price tag would be $495 million.

Administrators at other hospitals in the Farmington Valley contend the need for an expanded Dempsey hospital has not been demonstrated. They fear a new, state-of-the-art public hospital would drain away patients with insurance and the ability to pay, leaving their institutions to care for more uninsured patients and endangering their financial viability.

Stuck between these two compelling arguments were state legislators. Now the Higher Education Committee has proposed a compromise that deserves the support of the full legislature. It would provide $10.5 million to help Dempsey hospital meet its current operating shortfall. It would also order the Office of Health Care Access to determine the number of hospitals beds needed in central Connecticut over the next decade.

The study would be completed by January 2008, in time for the next legislative session.

Opened in 1975, Dempsey hospital is the second-smallest, academic health-center hospital in the United States. It has 224 licensed beds, but 116 are devoted to special requirements tied to its role as a public-health institution — including two floors dedicated to psychiatric care, an extensive neonatal clinic and providing for the health care of state prisoners.

That leaves the hospital with 108 nondedicated medical and surgical beds. University of Connecticut officials said that given those numbers it is increasingly difficult to generate sufficient revenues to cover costs.

The hospital's small size and outdated facilities also make it hard to attract and retain the high quality faculty, physicians and staff needed to support the University of Connecticut Health Center's medical and dental schools. The health center has 320 medical students, 160 dental school students and 380 students in its graduate school in bio-medical sciences. Its dental school is consistently rated first or second in the nation.

UConn maintains that the solution is to build a new, $495 million, six-story hospital at the site with 352 beds, a 128-bed net increase. About $45 million would come from reallocating money earmarked for the UConn 2000 renovation project. Another $20 million to $25 million would come from private fund raising. The state would finance the bulk of the construction costs through bonding, with the loans repaid through hospital revenues, not tax dollars.

Other hospitals in the Farmington Valley — Hartford Hospital, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, Bristol, Middlesex, and the Hospital of Central Connecticut — oppose construction of a new John Dempsey Hospital.

The state cannot afford to let the quality of its only public academic health-center hospital slip, but getting all the facts before making a decision is a prudent course of action.