As reported by the Valley Press, July 2, 2009.

UConn Tries to Save Ailing Health Center

Proposal to Partner with Hartford Hospital Hinges on Legislative Action

By Amy Desson

The University of Connecticut believes it has the right prescription to fix its ailing, financially troubled UConn Health Center – now it's trying to convince lawmakers to give it a shot.

UConn rolled out a bold proposal earlier this year that includes a partnership with Hartford Hospital and a new $475 million facility to replace the antiquated John Dempsey Hospital in Farmington. UConn President Michael Hogan says it would be just the shot in the arm the state – and the school – needs.

"It's a great academic value, great economic value and a great healthcare value," Hogan said. "It solves the budget deficit at John Dempsey, makes it possible for us to begin addressing the imminent shortage of physicians and dentists in the state and ensures good health care."

Hartford Hospital President and CEO Elliot Joseph echoes those sentiments.

"I think we've created an answer to the persistent problem that the university, its Health Center and the state have faced. We believe we've crafted an elegant solution," he said. "The UConn leadership and Hartford Hospital leadership have a very common vision about what we'd like to see created to benefit the region and local communities we're serving."

Under the new umbrella, the "University Hospital" would be split between two locations. The existing Hartford Hospital 850-bed site would remain downtown, but undergo a $300 million renovation. The second site in Farmington would be a new 250-bed facility that would replace the outdated John Dempsey Hospital. Construction and renovations would take an estimated six years.

Both Hogan and Joseph say the partnership would raise the standing of the UConn Medical School and give it the boost it needs to become a renowned top-tier facility in the state and region – something that's attractive to Hartford Hospital.

"Our devotion to teaching and research requires that we have a strong medical school partner to elevate the caliber of students, the caliber of research and, ultimately, at end of day, improve the quality of care our patients receive," Joseph said.

"It has the potential to produce a dramatic improvement in the quality of health care we can deliver to the state," he said.

Hogan says the partnership and new facility would allow UConn to train significantly more doctors, dentists and other healthcare professionals – with the intention that they'd stay in the state after graduation to practice.

Talk of a merger isn't sitting well with everyone – in fact, it's a bitter pill to swallow for some local hospitals. St. Francis in Hartford and Bristol Hospital both oppose the plan, and worry it'll take patients away from their respective facilities.

"We're not trying to threaten anyone else's market share," Hogan said.

He points out the new "University Hospital" would not have any more beds than Hartford Hospital and the UConn Health Center currently have right now as they operate separately.

When UConn initially began brainstorming, it reached out to all the hospitals in the area – looking for one that was willing to engage in a research, teaching and clinical partnership. Hartford Hospital was the only one to offer a comprehensive proposal to do all three.

When the proposal made its way to the state Capitol back in February, one of the key concerns then – and now – was money. Under the proposal, it would cost the state $475 million to build a new facility in Farmington and $13 million a year in labor costs.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell has said all along the proposal is interesting, but unaffordable given the current economic climate and state budget deficit.

Hogan says the state would make out in the long run. A study from the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis estimates the plan would create more than 18,000 new jobs by 2040 and net the state $900 million in new tax revenue – which Hogan points out is nearly double what it would cost to build the facility in the first place.

"I think the project has an enormous positive upside on the economy for the state of Connecticut. We're all looking to stimulate economic development," Joseph said. "I think we'd all be very hard pressed to find another opportunity for economic stimulus in this region."

"It promises to bring an end to the financial instability that has plagued John Dempsey Hospital over the last several years and will continue to plague the hospital unless we reach some permanent long term solution," Hogan said.

It's no secret the UConn Health Center, operating as is, is in dire financial straits. In fact, just two weeks ago, on June 19, state lawmakers voted to pony up $22 million to cover the deficit and keep John Dempsey Hospital afloat.

Hogan points out that under the proposed arrangement, the state wouldn't have to foot that type of bill anymore – because if John Dempsey operated with a deficit, it'd be on Hartford Hospital's books. While lawmakers remain at the state Capitol hammering out a budget, they're not expecting to take up the UConn issue during the special session.

"There are a lot of people and committees involved in trying to resolve the fiscal problems and other problems of the medical center and medical school," said state Sen. Mary Ann Handley (D-Manchester), chairman of the Higher Education Committee.

That said, she doesn't expect the issue to be resolved quickly.

"It's a very complex agreement. We're examining it line by line," she said. "There's no indication there would be any legislative action within this special session. This session is dedicated to resolving the budget issues."

Even if the lawmakers don't give the plan a green light – or red light – this time around the proposal will remain on the table.

"We're anxiously awaiting the political process that, hopefully, will result in affirmation of that in the legislature and the governor's office," Joseph said.

"I think we're a lot further down the line than anyone thought we'd get," Hogan adds. After making his case, all Hogan can do is wait for the process to play out and hope his prescription for a healthy hospital gets written.

"I can say we're getting a very fair hearing from the legislative leadership and the governor's office," Hogan said. "They're going to give it full and fair consideration."