As reported by The New York Times, December 12, 2008.

UConn Seeks Approval for Hospital Merger

By Gregory B. Hladky

The University of Connecticut Health Center, which has survived with the aid of $52 million in state bailouts since 2000, is now hoping for legislative approval to merge with Hartford Hospital.

Advocates of the merger believe that it would eventually end the need for repeated infusions of state funds and would give Connecticut a major academic medical center that could provide an economic boost to the region.

The current medical center includes a stem-cell unit and medical and dental schools in addition to its 224-bed hospital.

UConn’s president, Michael J. Hogan, said that the merger hinged on a request for $500 million in state bonds to build a new, larger complex at the Health Center’s Farmington campus, and more than $10 million a year in additional state support.

Mr. Hogan said that the merger plan with Hartford Hospital was still being negotiated. “We have worked our way through a number of thorny issues,” he said. “But we still have some very big issues left.”

Hartford Hospital officials declined to be interviewed about the merger plan.

The proposal comes amid forecasts of state budget deficits as high as $6 billion over the next two years.

“I suppose this does seem like a bad time,” Mr. Hogan admitted as he began a round of lobbying visits with legislative leaders earlier this month. “In the long term, though, the hospital has to be rebuilt. I don’t see any way around it.”

Convincing lawmakers of the need to merge the two hospitals will probably not be easy, according to the vice-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, Representative Deborah W. Heinrich.

“At this point, with everything that’s on the table, with the spending cuts we’re looking at, it will be a plan that’s going to be very closely scrutinized,” said Ms. Heinrich, a Democrat from Madison.

But the committee’s Senate chairwoman, Toni N. Harp of New Haven, said she hoped that the funds needed to build a new regional medical-educational center on the health center campus “can be offset by the dollars we get from the federal government for infrastructure improvements.”

Ms. Harp and Mr. Hogan said that creating a new medical teaching and research center appears to fit President-elect Barack Obama’s stated desire to finance public projects with federal funds in order to stimulate the economy. “I’m thinking that would be a good place to look,” Ms. Harp said.

According to Ms. Harp, an expanded health center should eventually be able to pay off the state bonds needed to finance its construction.

Ms. Heinrich said that lawmakers must also consider the possibility of closing the UConn health center, which has encountered frequent financial problems since it opened in the 1960s. “Just like with every decision we have to make, we have to look at every option,” she said.

She said that the medical center “serves a very unique function in this state” as Connecticut’s only public hospital. “It would be a shame to lose that,” Ms. Heinrich said.

“This is not something we’re going to finish deciding in this next session,” she added. “It’s going to take some time.”

The merger would also need approval from the State Office of Health Care Access.

“They have such an exhausting road ahead of them,” said Cristine A. Vogel, the office’s commissioner. She said that any such plan must answer the question, “Does the population in that area require these services?”

Last year, UConn offered the General Assembly a proposal to construct a $495 million teaching hospital to replace the antiquated one in Farmington. But Mr. Hogan said the plan “was not well received by other area hospitals,” which were apparently fearful of added competition.

The legislature commissioned a study this year by the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering that recommended that the health center join with one or more for-profit hospitals in the area.

The unresolved issues to a merger with Hartford Hospital include what kind of financial contribution the state would make and the exact financial arrangements with the hospital’s for-profit parent company, Hartford Healthcare Corporation, according to Mr. Hogan.

He said UConn would also need the state to pay for the difference between the cost of benefits and health care for Hartford Hospital employees and the more-expensive plans that UConn Health Center employees, who are state employees, have.

Mr. Hogan estimated that cost at $10 million to $15 million a year.

“The real question is whether we want to have a publicly funded medical school in this state,” said Ms. Harp.