As published as an opinion in The Hartford Courant, March 18, 2007.

Hospital Plan Fits UConn Mission

By Bill Curry

The University of Connecticut took an unaccustomed thrashing at the Capitol this past week. A legislative committee postponed action on its bid to build a new hospital for its Farmington medical center. The defeat came at the hands of area hospitals out to derail a project that only months ago looked to be on track.

The committee is headed by Salisbury state Rep. Roberta Willis, a smart and highly principled politician. Given the circumstances, it did right. But the entire episode sheds light on a health care planning system that in recent years has grown weak and highly political. A little background is in order:

You've seen the UConn Health Center even if you've never been there. It's impossible to miss from I-84, rising up from the Farmington woods, majestic, monolithic, looking as Camelot might - if Stanley Kubrick were King Arthur's public works director. Taking in the view, you might think there's a really big hospital there. You'd be wrong.

John Dempsey Hospital, named for the governor whose leadership helped get it built, is a small part of a facility that includes a medical school, a dental school and a graduate degree program in research. Its 224 beds place it far behind the 867-bed Hartford and 682-bed St. Francis hospitals, which labored this past week to curb its growth.

The hospital has been a political football since it was a glint in Dempsey's eye. First was a battle over where to put it. It belonged in Hartford, both from a regional planning view and because the city was home to so many poor people needing care. It ended up in Farmington not because folks there lobbied hard for the honor but as a compromise to placate Hartford hospitals fearful of competition.

The facility was an instant white elephant. The astounding choice of an electric heating system was variously attributed to undue influence by the power company and outright corruption among the politically connected contractors whose monumental cost overruns inspired a string of inconclusive investigations.

The perils of politics and the inclination of highly territorial competitors to forage in its fields have been recurring themes for UConn. In fairness to the other hospitals, given the economics of health care, they have little choice but to fight hard.

Hospitals complain of a UConn edge at the legislature. It may be that legislators are easily beguiled by basketball tickets. But if you called Farmington for those tickets, you dialed the wrong extension. UConn does a fine job advocating for its beloved Storrs campus, but it's no match for the hospitals' high-powered law firms.

The health center built a superb children's cancer program but couldn't keep it from being bound over to the Children's Medical Center at Hartford Hospital. Area hospitals fought to restrict UConn's pediatric practice, perhaps because pediatrics is the way for a hospital to make lifelong customers of whole families.

Despite it all, UConn built an amazing program in Farmington. It built a new heating system and the best dental school in the country. The medical school and research programs are world-class. The week it was being pasted at the Capitol and in the press, it was named one of the top 100 hospitals in America, one of only 15 research hospitals and three Connecticut hospitals so listed. (Kudos to Yale-New Haven and Danbury.)

To maintain its research and teaching, UConn says it needs 128 beds and a new building. Willis' committee wants the state Office of Health Care Access to gauge the need. That should include our need for first-rate medical research and teaching; if 128 beds help secure that, it's a powerful argument for letting UConn go forward.

The fight thus far is all in the legislature. I asked Gardner Wright, a wise former legislator who later regulated hospitals, where the executive branch went. He cites staff cuts in agencies due to rising entitlement costs coupled with the spending cap, but says the health department could nonetheless cough up a real state health plan to guide legislators.

In the '90s, agencies that protect public health and safety got not just smaller but more politicized. In this regard, the Office of Health Care Access ranks up there. Credit Gov. John G. Rowland for fostering the impression that the way to grow a hospital was to get all lawyered up and then stop by the mansion. Gov. M. Jodi Rell has been conspicuously absent from the fight over Dempsey Hospital. She should get involved and in a style more like Dempsey's than Rowland's.