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UConn Scraps Plan To Merge Health Center With Hartford Hospital


November 21, 2009

University of Connecticut leaders have scrapped a proposal to merge the UConn Health Center with Hartford Hospital, determining that the latest plan for the health center's future could not win enough support to succeed.

That leaves university leaders in a familiar position, grappling with the future of a hospital they consider too small and outdated to be economically viable and searching for a plan acceptable to state lawmakers, who must approve any proposal.

In a statement Friday, UConn President Michael J. Hogan said the university is working with legislative leaders and the governor's office to consider other options.

UConn officials had touted the proposed Hartford Hospital partnership as the best solution to the health center's problems. But the proposal, which called for building a new $475 million hospital with state funds, failed to win legislative approval this year and drew opposition from Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who said it was too expensive.

The plan was "a bold and challenging proposal even in the best of economic times," Hartford Hospital spokeswoman Lee Monroe said in a statement Friday.

"The health of the University of Connecticut is vital to our region and the main reason why we initially responded to the state's request for a partner," the statement said. "We remain steadfast in our commitment to helping elevate the UConn School of Medicine to top-tier status."

UConn and Hartford Hospital leaders did not elaborate on their plans moving forward.

At Square One

There have been a number of other ideas proposed over the years, ranging from UConn building its own new hospital (staunchly opposed by other area hospitals) to closing UConn's John Dempsey Hospital altogether and letting the other hospitals absorb its patients and teaching functions (staunchly opposed by UConn).

More recently, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, which opposed the Hartford Hospital plan, offered its own vision, centered on strengthening research as a way to raise the profile of the medical school and help the health center.

In many ways, scrapping the Hartford Hospital proposal leaves the players where they were at the beginning of the process, said Laurence A. Tanner, president and CEO of the Hospital of Central Connecticut. But there's a significant difference: This time, he said, everyone agrees that doing nothing about Dempsey would have dire consequences.

"The basic fundamental issues you need to address are still there. They're not terribly different than when this started a year and a half ago," Tanner said. "They're still there and are going to have to be addressed one way or another."

UConn officials say the 224-bed Dempsey Hospital is small and outdated, making it difficult for the health center to recruit faculty and achieve top-tier status for the medical school. The hospital has struggled financially in recent years, requiring several infusions of cash from the state.

In 2007, UConn officials proposed a solution: Build a $495 million, 352-bed hospital to replace Dempsey on the Farmington campus.

But the plan drew steep criticism from the other area hospitals, who rallied to defeat the proposal in the legislature, worried that a new hospital in Farmington would lure away privately insured patients.

To address the issue, lawmakers commissioned a study of strategies for saving the health center.

Last year, UConn tried another approach. Hogan proposed a regional partnership. The group commissioned by the legislature to study the issue, the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering, or CASE, also recommended regional collaboration, and noted in its report that the area did not need additional hospital beds.

Options Evaluated

UConn solicited proposals from other hospitals, and five responded.

From that came the Hartford Hospital proposal, which UConn and Hartford Hospital officials presented to lawmakers in February with CASE's endorsement. It called for creating a two-campus "University Hospital" and developing a collaboration with other area hospitals to increase their involvement with UConn's medical and dental schools.

As part of the proposal, Hartford Hospital would assume responsibility for the health center's finances, meaning the state would no longer have to cover any deficits at the health center. But the state would have to foot the bill for about $13 million a year in labor costs for health center employees, bringing the taxpayer tab to $605 million over 10 years.

Supporters said the plan would raise the region's profile in health care, raise the medical school to top-tier status, and create thousands of jobs.

But the plan had many critics.

St. Francis Hospital and Bristol Hospital criticized the idea of using state resources to build a facility for their competitors at a time when other hospitals struggled to balance their budgets.

The health center's unions raised concerns about the plan and argued that more state support would allow the health center to be viable without having to merge with a private hospital.

The plan's price tag drew hesitation from many lawmakers, who were facing a massive budget deficit. Some lawmakers also questioned whether the merger was the only solution.

The majority of the health center's approximately 5,000 employees are unionized, while Hartford Hospital's employees are not. And earlier this week, faculty members at the health center voted to form a union, a cause that union supporters said may have been helped by insecurity among clinical faculty about the potential merger.

Some lawmakers have suggested considering closing Dempsey. The region has enough licensed beds to, at least in theory, absorb the loss of 224 beds at Dempsey. Some observers have pointed to other medical schools, including Harvard, that don't have their own hospitals.

But UConn officials have staunchly opposed any suggestion that closing Dempsey be on the table. They say that having a hospital is critical to the medical school's success, particularly when it comes to attracting federal research money.

On Friday, Rell spokeswoman Donna Tommelleo offered a view of what it would take to earn the governor's support for a plan.

"The governor believes a new hospital would elevate the UConn medical school into the top tier of the country and would be an economic driver of jobs," Tommelleo said. "But the plan must be one that is affordable and pass muster with the legislature."

Courant Capitol Bureau Chief Christopher Keating 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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