As published as an editorial in the Journal Inquirer, April 10, 2009.

State Needs University Hospital

The University of Connecticut wants to build a new hospital where John Dempsey Hospital in Farmington is now and merge the UConn Health Center with Hartford Hospital. The two-campus, 1,100-bed hybrid would be called “University Hospital” and it would cost the state of Connecticut — which is to say beleaguered taxpayers — $605 million over the next 10 years.

The Farmington campus would be all new and the Hartford campus would have a new $300 million, 850-bed patient tower.

University Hospital would basically be run by Hartford Hospital, though UConn and Hartford Hospital would have equal board representation, and the mutual right to veto board appointees.

Hartford Hospital would invest in the research of the UConn Medical School and its faculty. It would also assume the heavy financial burden of medical care to the poor that has made Dempsey a losing proposition for a very long time.

But the price tag for taxpayers is heavy.

Approximately $600 million is not chump change, especially during a recession.

In better financial times, the proposal might be seen as a “no-brainer.”

Here is why:

  • Dempsey is dying. Its facilities are dated and there is no financial offset for its charity work.
  • It is not often that a private enterprise invests in medical research, or for that matter commits to partner with an academic institution. UConn simply could not build a research hospital on its own.
  • A first-rate, top-tier medical school would seem to be the next step for UConn, which is becoming one of the great and prestigious public universities in America. And the only way to take the medical school to the next level is to have a hospital.
  • And, most important, it would be a good thing for the state.

Medical care, we are beginning to discover in this nation, is a public resource — like clean water or clean air. But like another resource — energy — it need not be finite. We can make more.

More and better health care is good for the public.

One of the great assets of Boston is the hospital system there.

There is a final benefit to the University Hospital plan, for greater Hartford and for Connecticut. It is economic.

Medicine and health care are big businesses.

University Hospital would create jobs, not only in nursing and in fields related to medical care, but in support of research.

Connecticut could become a national leader in medical science and technology, which would give this state a foothold in the new economy. The state is already a leader in pharmacological research, so there is a fit.

Let’s face it: The insurance industry will never come back to what it was; neither will defense; and neither will finance.

We can no longer depend on Hartford’s insurance execs, East Hartford’s and Groton’s workers, or Wall Street brokers living in the western part of the state to carry us.

We need to develop new industry.

Medical research and biotech may be part of the answer.

So what’s the problem?

Well, money, rivalry, and shortsightedness.

The state hasn’t got that sort of money right now.

The public is already overtaxed and feeling anxious and beat up.

Gov. Jodi Rell has said the University Hospital idea is good and promising, but not now.

Rivalry comes from Hartford Hospital’s archrival, St. Francis Hospital, which cries “no fair.” But this is not persuasive, and should not be determinative. St. Francis was invited to be part of this cooperative project and declined. It will actually benefit from more medical patients coming to the area. It will benefit from more doctors and dentists, whom the state badly needs and whom University Hospital would produce. Moreover, what matters most, in the end, is what is good for Connecticut, not what St. Francis thinks is an unfair competitive advantage for Hartford Hospital.

Alas, the longtime rivalry of the two hospitals has long obscured the public good.

Finally, there is shortsightedness — lack of vision.

Rell is right. It would be better to do this later.

But we cannot afford to wait.

UConn needs a great medical school now.

Dempsey needs replacement and rescue now.

Connecticut needs new jobs now.

And there are people in this area who have cancer or heart disease who cannot go to Boston or New York. They need a world-class hospital right here and now.

We have all heard the stories of how Abraham Lincoln said he would build the national road and finish the Capitol dome even in the midst of the Civil War.

Sometimes you have to invest not just in spite of adverse conditions but because of them.

Let’s find a way to get this done.

Let’s put the best leaders and thinkers of the state together in a room and demand that they figure out a way to progress in spite of hard times.

Office of Policy and Management Secretary Robert Genuario has suggested the university consider funding the plan with some of the $2.3 billion the state authorized for UConn capital investments. Of that, $827 million has not yet been spent. Naturally UConn officials don’t want to do that. They say that money has already been assigned to other projects.

But suppose some of those projects were deferred, as University Hospital will otherwise be deferred. Suppose some building projects are delayed or scaled back. Suppose UConn put up in the range of $300 million to $400 million — or about half of what it has available. For the implied suggestion from the governor’s office and the General Assembly is that UConn would be the big winner here and it needs to put something up. That would leave the rest of the bill to taxpayers, in the form of state bonding (borrowing), and to Hartford Hospital. Additionally the bonding could be delayed if UConn used money already available in the first stages of the project.

The point is: We can do this. We can find a way. We can make the numbers work.

And we should do this.

Shine a light. Affirm confidence and hope in the future. Particularly in dark times.