As published as an editorial in the Danbury News-Times, March 24, 2007.

Hospital Proposal Requires Serious Consideration

The University of Connecticut's health center in Farmington is a treasure and an economic engine for the state.

It includes the UConn medical and dental schools and the research programs that attract students and research dollars to Connecticut.

UConn's proposal to build a $500 million new hospital at the Farmington complex has ignited a number of controversies.

Legislators say UConn officials didn't warn them of this pending proposal. And hospitals in the Hartford area have organized a vigorous campaign to stop the construction of a new UConn hospital.

The hospital coalition includes Hartford Hospital, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, Bristol Hospital, Middlesex Hospital and the Hospital of Central Connecticut.

Executives from these hospitals say replacing UConn's John Dempsey Hospital with a larger, more modern facility will be an economic threat to their facilities.

That argument has a familiar ring in western Connecticut. When Danbury and New Milford hospitals sought state regulatory approval to provide advanced cardiac care, large hospitals in other regions voiced opposition.

The opposition wasn't based on need in western Connecticut. It was based on the impact on their bottom lines. They were more concerned about limiting competition than in protecting lives in western Connecticut.

The UConn proposal is not about filling a health-care vacuum. But UConn officials say it is about preserving the excellence of the medical and dental schools and the research programs. Dr. Peter Deckers, director of the medical center, says he won't be able to continue to attract top faculty and students without a larger, more modern hospital.

Dempsey is a small hospital -- with just 108 of its 224 beds available for general medical purposes. This limits its financial viability. Beds are set aside for maternity and psychiatric specialties, as well as for the care of state prisoners under tight security not available at other hospitals.

In addition, the health center's operating costs are increased by labor contracts negotiated by the state, not UConn. This puts the health center at a competitive disadvantage with other hospitals.

This is a complicated issue that requires extensive study and debate. Fortunately, the legislature's higher education committee has worked out a good compromise.

It includes an extra $10.5 million to help Dempsey cover its $21 million operating shortfall, and requires a study by the state's Office of Health Care Access to determine the number of hospital beds needed in the Hartford area over the next 10 years. The study will be ready for consideration by the legislature next year.

A year's delay will provide time to calm the waters, but also time to consider what the focus of the debate should be.

The financial health of hospitals in the Hartford area certainly should be a concern, but so should the future of the medical and dental schools and the research programs that are so important to the entire state.