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Uconn Health Center More Rash Than Bold

Kevin Rennie

June 05, 2011

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is determined in all things. When he resolves on a course of action, he pursues it with the brash energy that had him playing rugby far into middle age. The challenge with that sort of unbridled self-confidence is to make good ideas better.

The danger, however, is that it will be put in the service of making bad ideas worse. That's the course Malloy has set in his plans to lavish a fortune on the University of Connecticut Health Center, employing more swagger than insight into the complicated challenges facing the university's permanent invalid of a hospital. Malloy wants to take credit for putting some cranes in the sky and the fastest place he can do it is against the horizon on a high ridge in leafy, affluent Farmington.

Malloy, who traveled the state this winter and spring telling the public that everyone was going to sacrifice, skipped the part about his new plan to cross his fingers and spend $864 million. Details were not abundant in Malloy's Farmington gamble.

The plan, which was rammed through the Senate last week, has claimed the reputation of one legislator. State Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, presided at a meeting of some legislators and various administration and UConn officials. The meeting was limited to two hours and each legislator could ask only one question. Maybe if the initial price tag had been a full $1 billion they would have allowed a second question.

Bye should not have consented to subverting public and legislative inquiry and reflection in the service of speed over participation. This is primarily a public works project, unveiled shortly after Malloy signed into law the largest tax increase in the state's long history.

The plan revives a late Rell administration proposal for a new UConn Health Center tower. That's $340 million. There's $208 million for a private investor to build an ambulatory care facility that the state will lease. The final piece is $321 million to renovate the current hospital for the medical school and independent research facility that, Malloy says, will become an economic powerhouse.

Between 2012 and 2018, Malloy estimates that the project will create 3,000 construction jobs, once more pleasing union supporters, always a priority with Malloy. The numbers get dodgy from there. Malloy says his edifice complex will bring 16,400 jobs in bioscience by, wait for it, 2037. The tax benefits will be so staggering to the state that maybe he should make it twice the size.

It is folly to try to see so far into the future, especially in the realms of science and medicine. Across the nation the number of beds needed for hospital care is expected to decline in the next decade. Medical advances have reduced the number and length of stays for many procedures. The national health care legislation enacted in 2010 is premised in part on moving people out of expensive hospital stays.

UConn and state government are late to the competitive world of medical research. Yale, with its vast private resources, is enjoying success with its program, helping to revitalize downtown New Haven. It may be more interested in competing than cooperating. A little over an hour away from Hartford, Worcester also has a medical research program that is growing.

The cost of creating anything at UConn is only the beginning of the taxpayers' commitment. The care and feeding of a university has become onerous. The benefits provided health center employees, for example, are considerably more lucrative than those offered by Hartford hospitals.

To prop up UConn, the state reimburses it for services provided to the poor under Medicaid at a percentage of its rates far higher than any other hospital in the state. Year after year, the legislature has had to give the health center tens of millions of dollars simply so it can appear to balance its books.

If the state was going to drop a load of dough on UConn's health center, it would have been better to do it in Hartford, where the poor could get to it and where the office vacancy rate has reached an alarming level. That would have taken two things Malloy refuses to invest: time and thought.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at kfrennie@yahoo.com.

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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