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UConn Plans Hospital Growth

Urban Competitors Stand To Lose If Dempsey Expands

February 14, 2006
By WILLIAM HATHAWAY, Courant Staff Writer

In the coming years, John Dempsey Hospital will need to be rebuilt or renovated to keep the University of Connecticut Health Center financially viable, UConn officials have concluded.

"For the sake of the state's medical school and biomedical research, doing nothing is just not an option," said Steven Strongwater, associate dean for clinical affairs at the health center in Farmington.

But any major expansion at the suburban hospital, which helps fund other health center functions, will inevitably hurt St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center and Hartford Hospital, which have primary responsibility to care for the region's poor, officials at the urban hospitals said.

"We don't have any details, but a significant expansion would be a significant financial hit to St. Francis and all hospitals in the region," said Christopher Dadlez, president and chief executive officer of St. Francis Hospital.

An uneasy truce between the Hartford area's three highly competitive hospitals has been threatened in recent weeks by the circulation of a UConn Health Center document that describes plans to either build a new hospital on the Farmington campus or renovate and expand the existing hospital.

Under the plans being discussed by UConn officials, the capacity of Dempsey Hospital would expand by about 90 beds - to 314 licensed beds. Cost of the new construction has been estimated at $300 million.

By contrast, Hartford Hospital has about 860 licensed beds and St. Francis 617.

J. Kevin Kinsella, vice president of Hartford Hospital, said that he wanted to see more details of UConn's plans before commenting.

UConn officials said that the discussions of any new construction or renovation are in the preliminary stages and that there is no immediate plan to ask the state legislature for funding or to apply for state approval of additional hospital beds. Officials, however, have been quietly contacting potential donors to gauge support for the project.

UConn officials said it became clear during planning sessions that the hospital, which helps support both the medical school and research efforts, will need to bring in more money.

The 225-bed hospital has reached capacity as demand for medical services is increasing in the Farmington Valley. While revenue remains flat, hospital costs and those at the medical school have been increasing, hospital officials said. Also, the hospital needs to be upgraded and expanded to help attract better medical school residents, officials said.

Dempsey Hospital has been a thorn in the side of both St. Francis and Hartford Hospital since it opened in 1975. Officials from the Hartford hospitals argue that the region did not need additional hospital beds. Dempsey also serves more affluent patients in the region, they say, while the two city hospitals treat a greater number of uninsured patients and people on Medicaid, the government program for the poor, which generally reimburses hospitals at lower rates than private insurers.

As health care costs increase faster than reimbursement rates, hospitals need to maintain a high volume of patients to remain financially viable.

Six years ago when Dempsey hit tough financial times, some suggested closing the hospital, but staff layoffs and a $20 million state bailout helped save it.

UConn officials say it is clear that with an aging population, many areas of the state do not have enough hospital beds, especially in growing suburbs of Hartford.

Unlike many states, Connecticut did not overbuild hospital beds in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, and therefore was spared the widespread hospital closings that afflicted much of the country in the '80s and '90s, said Alan Sager, a professor of health services and director of the Health Reform Program at Boston University School of Public Health.

The state and the Hartford region have "enjoyed remarkable stability in terms of hits to its hospitals," he said.

"But in this case," Sager said, "the health center's gain will be St. Francis Hospital's and Hartford Hospital's loss."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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