As reported by The Hartford Courant, March 14, 2007.

Some Hospital Help for UConn

$10.5 Million Aid Package Would Avert Vote on $495 Million Proposal

By Christopher Keating

The University of Connecticut's bid for a controversial new $500 million hospital won't happen this year, but the school's health center would gain a measure of financial relief under an agreement approved Tuesday by a key legislative committee.

The proposal would provide $10.5 million to help John Dempsey Hospital weather its $21 million operating shortfall, but would postpone a vote on a new hospital in Farmington until a comprehensive study is completed by January 2008.

The agreement approved by the higher education committee allowed legislators to avoid taking sides in an emotional debate that pitted UConn's John Dempsey Hospital against a coalition composed of Hartford Hospital, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, Bristol Hospital, Middlesex Hospital and The Hospital of Central Connecticut.

The issue has sharply divided the medical community. Some doctors have testified in favor of the proposed $495 million, 352-bed hospital, and others have strongly opposed it.

The $10.5 million would be used to pay for fringe benefits; UConn says it has been at a competitive disadvantage with other hospitals because it pays higher pensions and health benefits for state employees at Dempsey. As a result, at least five doctors from the health center earn pensions of more than $170,000 a year, with the highest at nearly $230,000.

The committee's proposals need approval of the full state House of Representatives and Senate, and the money would need to be allocated as part of the overall $17.5 billion state budget that is expected to be negotiated by early June.

"It is a good compromise," said Lorraine Aronson, a high-level administrator at UConn. "We don't run a hospital to run a hospital. We run a hospital as a classroom for the medical and dental schools."

The region's hospitals were bitterly divided over the UConn proposal, which would increase Dempsey's capacity by 128 beds. UConn officials have complained that only 108 of the 224 existing beds are set aside for general medical purposes; the rest are earmarked for specialties like the maternity and psychiatric wings, plus an area for state prison inmates under a contract that UConn maintains with the Department of Correction.

The committee's proposal directs the state's Office of Health Care Access to conduct a comprehensive study to determine the projected number of hospital beds needed in central Connecticut over the next 10 years. No such study has been done for nearly 20 years, officials said. The study would be completed in time for next year's legislative session.

Rep. William R. Dyson, a New Haven Democrat who voted for the deal, questioned at one point whether approving the additional $10.5 million in operating funds represented an implicit approval of the new hospital.

"This has many miles yet to go," responded Sen. Joan Hartley, a Waterbury Democrat who is co-leader of the committee. "There is no implicit OK in between the lines. We are not giving approval, implicit or otherwise."

Dyson said in an interview this week that UConn was asking for too much this year with the new hospital, the $21 million health center shortfall, and an additional $22.5 million over five years for 175 more full-time faculty members.

"You ain't gonna win them all," Dyson said. "Tongue in cheek, and you ain't got no [men's] basketball team playing in the NCAAs, so don't push your luck."

The high-stakes battle brought out lobbyists on both sides of the issue.

UConn, which has been successful in the past in lobbying the legislature, met its match in Gaffney Bennett, the most powerful lobbying firm at the state Capitol. While Gaffney Bennett's lobbyists worked the hallways, the firm's public relations arm issued a "fact sheet" against the UConn plan that included the logos of all five major hospitals against the idea. The sheet noted that the legislature had already approved a $20 million financial bailout of UConn in 2000, and now the health center is seeking $21 million more to balance its books seven years later.

UConn has traditionally had widespread support at the Capitol, and some legislators said they favor strengthening the entire health center, including the hospital, the 320-student medical school, the 160-student dental school, and the biomedical sciences graduate program.

"The hospital is in a critical condition, and this is an attempt to put it on life support until we can come up with a plan" for the long term, said Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, the committee co-chairwoman.

The controversy within the medical community has spilled out in the pages of Connecticut Medicine, the official journal of the Connecticut State Medical Society. The issue was broached in January with an article co-authored by UConn medical school dean Peter Deckers and titled "A Perfect Storm," which said the health center is seeking long-term fiscal stability.

"As a public institution, the health center cannot easily borrow money or obtain a corporate sponsor," Deckers wrote. "We depend on our quality, but also on the political winds that may not always fill our sail. ... It is hard to train for a marathon if your shoes are always on fire."

But Dr. Anna K. Henisz of Farmington responded to Deckers' article by saying the best solution would be to privatize Dempsey in the same way as the for-profit, investor-owned Sharon Hospital in Litchfield County.

"As painful as it might be to some, the John Dempsey Hospital should be sold to private investors," Henisz wrote. "The sale will bring millions of dollars, and the General Assembly will not be asked for more money disappearing in the black hole of an outdated model. To dispose of a state monument is not an easy task. History tells us that disposing of monument-keepers is an even greater challenge."

House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford, said in an interview Tuesday that he still remains skeptical about the proposed new hospital.

"I still need to be convinced that we need it," Amann said.