As reported by the New London Day, March 13, 2007.

UConn Makes Case for New Hospital

$495M Structure Would Replace Dempsey Facility

By Ted Mann

NEW LONDON - The pitch from University of Connecticut officials is simple: If you want the university's health center to survive and thrive, it must grow. And, they argue, it doesn't have to cost anything.

University President Philip E. Austin made the school's case for replacing the John Dempsey Hospital in Farmington in a meeting Monday with the editorial board of The Day, repeating the pitch he and others have made to state lawmakers in recent weeks.

The university is seeking to build a six-story, $495 million hospital building, a move officials say is necessary both to replace the current, outdated structure and to ensure the financial footing of Dempsey itself, which sustains the teaching and research functions of the University of Connecticut Health Center.

“The only way we can have a shot at self-sufficiency” for the health center's long-term operations, Austin said, is through an increase in state funding to help close the “academic gap” — the difference between the costs of research and teaching medical students and the state money the university is allocated for those purposes.

The university also needs permission to redirect previously approved funding to jumpstart work on a new hospital building, he said.

The operating funds would rise from their current level of roughly $76 million, or close to what the health center has received since 2000, to about $103 million by fiscal 2009, under the university's request to the legislature.

But its hospital plans could be nearly free, Austin said. The university is seeking the legislature's blessing to shift about $50 million in state bonds previously authorized for research improvements toward the cost of a hospital. A private fund-raising drive would raise another $25 million, and the university would then issue more than $400 million worth of bonds — guaranteed by the state but paid out of UConn's budget — to finance the construction of the facility.

The university has faced some doubt from legislators, and significant opposition from the other Hartford-area hospitals, whose representatives contend that additional beds at Dempsey — under the proposal, the total number of beds would jump from the current 224 to 352 — are unnecessary since the Hartford region is not growing in population. They also fear that an expanded facility in the suburbs would draw away proportionately more wealthy suburban patients whose private insurers allow the urban facilities to treat impoverished patients covered under Medicaid.

“The overall concern is the region as a whole is not growing,” said Christopher Hartley, senior vice president of planning and facilities development for St. Francis Hospital in Hartford. “Connecticut and the New England region overall will probably see a population loss.”

Building a new hospital is “probably the most expensive possible solution,” Hartley said, while adding that discussions among hospital executives was effectively ended by the university's decision to take its proposal to legislators.

“That dialogue was ended by UConn when they went forward with this particular plan on an individual basis,” he said.

Austin and UConn downplay those concerns, which are shared by executives at Hartford Hospital and the Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain. The UConn officials argue that Dempsey was originally slated to be a 400-bed facility when it was built in the mid-1970s, and that the former farmland in Farmington is now one of the few areas in that part of the state that are currently showing population growth.

They also challenged the fears of a draw-off of wealthier patients, noting that Dempsey currently is fifth in the state in serving Medicaid patients, just behind St. Francis and ahead of Hartford Hospital.

But the arguments are working on legislators, Austin said.

“I think that what they're worried about is that St. Francis and Hartford Hospital and New Britain have been in there hammering them, truth be told, for the past year,” he said. “They're telling them that one more bed at John Dempsey Hospital is going to kill them.”