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UConn Loses Out On Critical Grant For Health Center


December 29, 2010

Stinging from the loss of a critical $100 million federal grant, University of Connecticut officials and state leaders are not abandoning their goal of renovating and expanding the aging John Dempsey Hospital.

The task will be much harder after Wednesday's announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services that the money is going to Ohio State University, not to UConn or the 25 other health care institutions deemed eligible for the grant.

UConn officials say a sweeping renovation is the only way to save Dempsey, which has accrued multimillion dollar deficits in recent years and has had to rely on emergency bailouts from the legislature.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell unveiled a $362 million construction project for the health center earlier this year and the legislature approved the plan in May. But the $100 million grant was a key piece of the funding puzzle; legislators stipulated that if the university did not get the federal funds, UConn would be responsible for securing the money by 2015 or the project would be scrapped.

Philip E. Austin, UConn's interim president, and Cato T. Laurencin, vice president for health affairs and dean of the UConn School of Medicine, said the university's application "was extremely well done and clearly identified a compelling need for these targeted federal dollars."

As a result of Wednesday's announcement, the university will pursue money for the project through other means.

"We are pleased to say we have unwavering support from the UConn Foundation, the University's fundraising arm, as well as many community leaders who are fully committed to the success of these initiatives,'' Austin and Laurencin said in a joint statement. "With continued support from our faculty, staff, students and friends, our journey continues."

Governor-elect Dan Malloy, who lobbied extensively for the money, including flying to Washington to meet with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, said he too is not prepared to give up.

Malloy "views this decision as a setback, not a stop sign,'' his spokeswoman, Colleen Flanagan said. "He's speaking to staff, advisers, people in the business community, those at UConn and others to see if there's a way to come up with alternative funding for this project because he thinks it's that important."

The $100 million competitive grant was inserted into the landmark health care bill last year by U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, who was criticized for slipping in an earmark at the 11th hour. Dodd pointed out the grant wasn't an earmark: As the amendment was worded, many other states were eligible and ultimately, the secretary of health and human services would determine which one received the cash.

"It will be a competitive process," Dodd said at the time. But, he added, "obviously we'd like to see" UConn emerge the winner. "I'm going to fight like hell for it."

On Wednesday, the reaction of Dodd and other state political leaders was one of profound frustration. Dodd, a chief ally of President Barack Obama's, issued a statement saying he was "terribly disappointed in this decision by the Obama Administration. While this was a competitive grant that attracted numerous applicants, Connecticut made a very strong case that I am surprised did not match or exceed the applications by other states."

Malloy is focused on moving forward, "not Monday-morning quarterbacking or placing blame,'' Flanagan said. But he also intends to review the process to see "what Connecticut did, what it could have done better and what it should do going forward to make sure we don't miss out on something like this again,'' she said. "This whole process is illustrative of one of the reasons why it's imperative to have a governor who is continually pounding the pavement in Washington, knocking on doors, asking for meetings and building relationships."

Rell called the decision disappointing but said UConn and state officials remain committed to the project.

Built 35 years ago, Dempsey is in dire need of renovation. The proposal calls for a new patient tower and renovations to the existing space.

Previous improvement plans were opposed by area hospitals. This one, however, generated little opposition because it also provides programs and projects for those hospitals.

Martin Kramer, spokesman for the Health Resources and Services Administration, which is part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, said 27 health care centers nationally were eligible for the grant money. Applicants were assessed by an independent review board, and Ohio State's application received the top score. Kramer declined to discuss the criteria or what tipped the balance in Ohio State's favor, citing proprietary information.

Ohio is expected to be a key swing state in the 2012 presidential election and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who is also up for re-election in 2012, hailed the decision. "This unprecedented project will bring thousands of new jobs to Central Ohio and further cement our state's leadership in providing the highest quality of medical care," Brown said in a statement posted on his website.

But while UConn had been counting on the money, the CEO of the Ohio State University Medical Center told the Columbus Dispatch the grant "wasn't even in our plans."

Ohio State will use the money to add a radiation oncology center to its planned $1 billion Medical Center expansion, the Dispatch reported.

Courant staff writer Hilda Munoz contributed to this story.

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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