Competitors Team Up Against $500 Million UConn Plan
March 9, 2007
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Capitol Bureau Chief
In an unprecedented clash, five major hospitals teamed up and went public Thursday to protest the University of Connecticut's plan to build a $500 million hospital in Farmington.
They asked the legislature to block the proposal.
Behind-the-scenes feuding over the proposed new hospital spilled into public view during a hearing of the legislature's higher education committee. Officials of the hospitals - which compete with UConn's John Dempsey Hospital - criticized the plan after university officials made a slide-show presentation.
UConn says its 30-year-old hospital in Farmington is too small and seriously outdated, making it increasingly difficult to attract top faculty for its adjacent medical and dental schools.
Competing hospitals say a larger hospital in Farmington would siphon off suburban patients with good insurance plans, leaving them with a disproportionate number of poor patients and more severe financial problems.
"What I believe we're seeing here is a classic example of what happens when an industry cannot work out its differences," J. Kevin Kinsella, a vice president at Hartford Hospital, told the committee. "They bring it to a government entity to decide."
The acrimony went both ways. When Kinsella cited some incorrect statistics about John Dempsey, UConn people laughed before shouting out the correct data.
Kinsella later said that in 35 years in the hospital business, he had never seen so many hospitals lined up publicly against another.
The best solution, some legislators said, might be for the hospitals - Hartford Hospital, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, Bristol Hospital, Middlesex Hospital, and The Hospital of Central Connecticut - to work with UConn to determine the number of new beds that are needed in the region.
Some of the hospitals had been involved in previous talks, but UConn eventually broke off the dialogue and decided to ask the legislature to help build a 352-bed hospital to replace the 224-bed facility on the Farmington campus.
Under the proposal, UConn - rather than taxpayers - would pay off more than $400 million in bonds. But the other hospitals argued that that taxpayers would be forced to make the payments if Dempsey runs into financial trouble.
Dempsey, along with UConn's medical, dental, and bioscience graduate schools, form the UConn Health Center.
The center now is seeking state money to close a projected $21 million deficit in the current fiscal year. That red ink is coming seven years after the legislature provided a $20 million bailout of the facility.
Insiders say UConn traditionally wins battles at the legislature because of the high number of lawmakers who are alumni and because of the widespread support for the university's basketball teams.
Officials of the competing hospitals say a new dialogue about working together is not likely unless the legislature rejects UConn's bid for a new hospital.
The division worries some legislators.
"The one thing we cannot afford here is an all-out war," said Rep. William R. Dyson, D-New Haven, the senior House Democrat with 30 years at the Capitol. "The last thing I want to hear about is a fight. There is too much at stake. We can't afford to be about the business of being at each other. I'm making that appeal to you."
In 45 pages of handouts, UConn said Dempsey is a 30-year-old facility that has had no major upgrades since it opened and has become "increasingly outdated." That hurts recruiting for the best and brightest faculty for the 320-student medical school and 160-student dental school, officials said.
The pressure at the Capitol has increased as lobbyists and public relations professionals spread their messages in the hallways and hearing rooms.
UConn's university relations office has been giving legislators copies of a newspaper article about Dempsey written by Dr. John W. Rowe, chairman of UConn's board of trustees and the former chairman and chief executive of health insurer Aetna Inc.
The competing hospitals collectively have been handing out their own "fact sheet" with the logos of the five hospitals stating, "A new hospital is not necessary to meet the state's future need for highly trained medical professionals."
Connecticut's hospitals are facing a combined shortfall of $280 million because of low reimbursement rates from Medicare, Medicaid and other payers.
Since most hospitals are operating on paper-thin margins, an influx of 128 new beds at the UConn Health Center could upset the delicate balance, officials said.
"All you have to do is shift market share 1 percent, and there's a direct financial problem," Kinsella said.
The problem, UConn says, is that only 108 of the 224 beds at Dempsey are now used for general medical purposes. The rest accommodate specialized areas, such as psychiatric and maternity wings and a special section for prison inmates.
As a result, crowding exists because only 108 beds can accommodate a high volume of patients needing general procedures such as removal of an appendix.
"We no longer have any bed capacity," said Lorraine Aronson, a UConn administrator. "Our bed mix now is unsustainable financially."
At one point during the daylong hearing, Rep. Art Feltman, a Hartford Democrat, suggested that Dempsey should be moved back to Hartford to better serve the capital city.
"Over Farmington's dead body," responded Rep. Demetrios Giannaros, a Democrat who represents Farmington.
Feltman, a former co-chairman of the public health committee, said he viewed UConn's proposal as a convoluted, complicated maneuver to improve the medical school.
"It's sort of a Rube Goldberg kind of thing," Feltman said. "We spend a half a billion dollars on a hospital that will eventually throw off some cash to help the medical school."
Aside from Thursday's hearing, top legislators have expressed increasing skepticism about the new hospital, saying they need more information before making such a major decision.
"Right now, I'm not convinced it's where we need to go," said House Majority Leader Christopher Donovan, a Meriden Democrat who leads the 107-member House caucus. "It was kind of dropped on us. It's kind of a little late in the session to be springing this on us."
House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk stressed that he is "very proud" of UConn as an alumnus but said he was dumbfounded when he heard about the new hospital. He still needs to be convinced.
"My mouth dropped," Cafero said. "Are you kidding me? It came as a surprise."
Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, the highest-ranking senator, said legislators must look at statewide needs and make sure that they are not duplicating services.
"Some would say with 31 hospitals across the state, we already have too many," Williams said in an interview Thursday. "We shouldn't be looking at every project in isolation."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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