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Health Center Proposal Merits Support

New Direction for UConn Hospital- Investment needed to remain competitive, innovative

The Hartford Courant

March 14, 2010

Ambition and reality appear to have found a meeting place in the plan introduced by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to bring needed modernization and regional cooperation to the operation of the University of Connecticut Health Center. Although still substantial, the $352 million cost is significantly better than the previous $500 million plan, which had no chance of passage in a state already on fiscal life support.

A new $236 million hospital tower for patient care will allow the health center to bring the John Dempsey Hospital up to modern standards and increase the number of single-patient rooms. The current decades-old patient tower has physical limitations that make the use of up-to-date medical equipment unwieldy. Hospital officials argue persuasively that renovation of that space would be expensive and not entirely effective.

Scaled-Back Expansion

Key to the acceptance of the latest plans by other hospitals in the area is increasing the number of medical/surgical beds at Dempsey by only 40 to 46. This includes shifting oversight of the 40 beds in Dempsey's neonatal intensive care unit to Connecticut's Children's Medical Center. This should create a more efficient, and more economical, regional neonatal care center. Although the neonatal unit will still be located in Farmington, the transfer of that responsibility will increase the number of beds Dempsey has available to other patients, officials said. But the extra beds are too few to threaten the business of the region's other hospitals, a point of contention in the last proposal, which included a 352-bed hospital.

More Hospitals Involved

The new plan is more collaborative than the last, which partnered the health center only with Hartford Hospital. The influence of the medical school as a training and research center will be spread through the establishment of a primary care institute at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center and a simulation center at Hartford Hospital. Both of these centers will be resources for hospitals in the region and beyond. Also envisioned are a center to study ways to end disparities in health care for minorities; a biosciences enterprise zone; an institute for clinical and translational science (translating scientific discoveries into practical applications); and a national comprehensive cancer center.

Bringing all these ideas to fruition depends on a fiscal plan that is by no means certain. Within the U.S. Senate version of the controversial federal health care bill is $100 million designated as a hospital grant that was proposed by Sen. Chris Dodd. Having the support of all the region's hospitals should make a stronger case in Washington, but nevertheless the funding is less than sure.

Bonding Could Be Crucial

Another way to improve the state's chance of getting the federal grant would be for the General Assembly to pass legislation authorizing $227 million in state bonding, as proposed by the project's backers. This would show Connecticut's commitment to an invigorated medical center, which is projected by UConn's Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis to create 5,221 new jobs by 2020, while attracting millions in research dollars.

Authorizing this bonding would mean giving up other authorized projects. Legislators have reasonably asked UConn officials to take a look at $160 million in bonding already approved for other health center projects.

Whether to commit to more spending when the state is deep in the red requires careful consideration. But the health center is one of the state's stronger assets. It trains doctors, attracts research money and offers the potential for economic growth.

Near-term spending for planning and design will come from $25 million already allocated to UConn. The lion's share of the spending for construction and renovations will not be needed for two years. By then, the economy may have improved enough to give the state more fiscal breathing room. If not, priorities for spending will mean tough choices.

To remain an attractive medical school and research facility, the health center needs to upgrade and create strong regional ties with area hospitals. If all goes smoothly, it will be five years before the health center proposal is fully realized. If the plan fails to go forward, the health center's ability to attract top faculty members and students could be significantly compromised and a critical amount of time will have been lost.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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