As published as an editorial in the Journal Inquirer, March 1, 2007.

Let UConn Build

The University of Connecticut wants to build a new John Dempsey Hospital, one that would be state-of-the-art and considerably bigger than the present hospital.

UConn wants to build it right in front of the current building in Farmington. Price tag: $495 million.

The former building would not be razed, but used for research.

St. Francis and Hartford Hospital are both opposed to the plan.

So is the New Britain-based Hospital of Central Connecticut.

They see competition.

Dempsey wants to add about 130 beds to its current 224 beds, for a total of 354.

UConn argues that it needs such an expansion to meet the needs of a gradually increasing aged population in the Farmington Valley. Second, the university says that to have a superb and competitive medical school it needs a viable hospital with plenty of patients and a top-notch facility.

The first contention seems to be so and the second is certainly true.

A fine medical school is good for 1) sick people in the area; 2) UConn; 3) the ability of the state to become a center of biotechnology.

Biotechnology may well be this state's future.

Insurance and submarines surely are not.

Suppose this plan fails. If Dempsey continues to limp along, what will happen?

Well, if the Farmington Valley lacks adequate medical facilities, that will force people into the Hartford hospitals, which might be good for those hospitals but might not be what sick people and their families in the Farmington Valley desire.

Actually, the only real alternative to investing in a university hospital would be to let Dempsey die and the UConn medical program die too.

Dempsey is small, both in capacity and facilities. It is losing money. It has never been remodeled since it was built 32 years ago. It can't compete as it is.

But as it might be, the UConn medical school is enhanced and public health in our state gets an infusion.

In short, it is potentially bad for St. Francis and Hartford Hospital financially if UConn goes ahead with building a new Dempsey Hospital, but good for the public. More choices and more investment in medicine are generally better for the public than less choice and less investment.

So what will this cost the people of the state?

Forty-five million dollars -- which money has already been earmarked for UConn Health Center renovations.

No new or additional money.

And surely a new hospital would be a better way to spend the $45 million than on an old one. Simply renovating the current facility won't make it competitive.

UConn intends to bond its debt and solicit donations to pay off the remaining $450 million.

That makes the Dempsey proposal a gamble.

The old Dempsey is a money loser. The plan for a new Dempsey depends on the hospital being a moneymaker.

And there is an equity issue that must be addressed. If Dempsey pulls away the bulk of wealthy and insured people and the Hartford hospitals are left with only with the poor and uninsured, those institutions will carry all the social burden of our rag-tag health insurance system in this region. Perhaps Dempsey should be compelled to accept a certain number of the poor and uninsured -- as a set percentage of its total patients.

But, with that caveat, let UConn build its new hospital.

The state cannot be in the hospital protection business.

Let Hartford Hospital and St. Francis compete.

More science, more medicine, and more choice benefit the greatest number of citizens. And that should be the test.