Headlines

As reported by The Hartford Courant, March 10, 2010.

State Pitches New $352 Million UConn Health Center Plan as 'Partnership'

By Arielle Levin Becker

FARMINGTON The price tag is $352 million, but as Gov. M. Jodi Rell told it Tuesday, the latest plan for the University of Connecticut Health Center has something for everyone.

UConn's John Dempsey Hospital would get a new $236 million patient tower, and the UConn Health Center would get $96 million in renovated academic and research space.

Two of Dempsey's competitors, Hartford Hospital and St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, would get funding to develop programs that would collaborate with the health center.

Patients would gain access to clinical trials, benefit from an increase in the number of doctors and dentists the university produces and have access to a regional cancer center.

And the region would get more than 5,000 new jobs and an enduring economic engine.

The plan marks the latest attempt at finding a long-term solution for the health center, which has run several multimillion-dollar deficits in the past decade. Previous attempts to replace Dempsey Hospital have failed, drawing opposition from other hospitals and, in the case of the last proposal, from Rell.

But at the health center Tuesday, Rell announced the new plan before a standing-room-only crowd that included the leaders of five other hospitals. She called the proposal a partnership, with hospitals including St. Francis, Hartford and Connecticut Children's Medical Center collaborating as part of a "UConn Health Network."

The bulk of the cost would be funded with $227 million in state bonding money, which would require canceling bonds already authorized for some projects. An additional $25 million would come from money previously approved for UConn projects.

The plan also relies on $100 million in federal funds, which have not yet been secured. Officials are looking at a $100 million hospital grant that U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd had inserted into the Senate health care reform bill, although the bill is not yet law. Connecticut would still need to apply for the funds if they become available.

Rell's proposal needs approval from the state legislature, as will any plans to cancel previously approved bonding.

After more than two years of work, UConn President Michael Hogan said, this plan could point the way to a solution.

"This pathway promises to solve the chronic budgetary challenges at the UConn Health Center and establish, for the first time in years, a stable fiscal foundation," he said in a written statement.

UConn leaders have said Dempsey is too small and outdated to be financially viable.

Dr. Cato Laurencin, dean of UConn's School of Medicine and the university's vice president for health affairs, said having a rejuvenated hospital would help attract doctors and research funding. It also would allow the university to expand medical and dental school classes, which could help address concerns about potential doctor and dentist shortages. The medical school, which now enrolls 346 students, could grow by 10 percent to 15 percent, Laurencin said.

The proposal calls for increasing Dempsey from 224 beds to between 230 and 234 beds, and for these initiatives:

  • A bioscience enterprise zone that would allow private-sector companies to earn state tax breaks and get financing and loan guarantees if they create jobs and work with members of the UConn Health Network.
  • A regional primary care institute at St. Francis, intended to develop new models for disease management, train future doctors and retrain primary-care doctors already in practice. St. Francis President and CEO Christopher Dadlez said the goal is to make primary care a more attractive specialty to pursue. St. Francis would add physicians for the institute and recruit faculty members in conjunction with UConn, he said.
  • A regional simulation and conference center, based at Hartford Hospital but open to the UConn Health Network. Hartford Hospital is already developing a new center that builds on its existing simulation program, which allows medical students and professionals practice techniques on computerized replicas of the human body.

Hartford Hospital President and CEO Elliot Joseph said he looked forward to working with UConn to elevate the center to national prominence.

  • A regional cancer program with federal designation as a comprehensive cancer center. Yale Cancer Center is now the only program in the state with that designation, which comes from the National Cancer Institute, although Hartford Hospital's program has been designated a community cancer center. Joseph said it was not yet clear how the regional center idea would fit with Hartford Hospital's community cancer designation.
  • Putting Connecticut Children's Medical Center in charge of Dempsey's neonatal intensive care unit. The unit would remain Farmington.

Tuesday's plan costs less than two previous proposals. One, in 2007, called for building a $495 million, 352-bed hospital to replace Dempsey. Area hospitals, worried that a new hospital would draw away privately insured patients, opposed the plan.

A second proposal, unveiled last year, called for the health center to merge with Hartford Hospital and for the state to fund a new $475 million hospital with about 250 beds.

That plan also drew opposition from other hospitals, as well as from Rell and the unions representing health center workers. UConn leaders abandoned the plan in November.

The legislature's public health and higher education committees, who must sign off on the proposal, are scheduled to hear about it at a forum Thursday morning.

State House Majority Leader Denise Merrill, a Mansfield Democrat who endorsed the plan, said gaining support will require convincing people across state that the project is in Connecticut's best interest.

The legislation for the proposal will be predicated on getting $100 million in federal funds, Merrill said. "That is really the key to the whole project," she said.

The state has not fared well in capturing federal funds in recent months.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said it would be unwise to make the plan contingent on federal money.

"If you look at our lack of success in securing Race to the Top grant funds, look at our lack of success securing recovery act transportation funds where the state got nothing, it doesn't seem realistic that that $100 million is going to ever land in the state of Connecticut," he said.