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Proposal Makes UConn Health Center, Hartford Hospital Partners

ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER

February 04, 2009

University of Connecticut officials Tuesday touted an ambitious proposal to partner the financially troubled University of Connecticut Health Center with Hartford Hospital, a plan that promises to end the Health Center's habit of seeking taxpayer bailouts.

But the plan also would require the state to come up with $475 million for a new hospital and spend $13 million a year in labor costs drawing scrutiny from lawmakers grappling with a major budget gap."$475 million in this climate is enormous," said state Rep. Elizabeth "Betty" Boukus, D- Plainville.

But UConn President Michael Hogan said some cost to taxpayers will be unavoidable.

The real choice, he said, is between a partnership and a new hospital that would allow the Health Center and medical school to thrive, or more years of state bailouts until UConn's outdated, undersized John Dempsey Hospital eventually has to close.

The state of Connecticut is facing a critical choice," Hogan said during a meeting at the Legislative Office Building. "There is no such thing as maintaining the status quo."

Plans for the proposed merger were revealed during a presentation by the independent Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering, which the legislature commissioned to monitor plans for the Health Center's future.

The partnership would create a "University Hospital," with campuses in Farmington and Hartford, and transform the Health Center from one of the smallest academic hospitals in the country to part of a major regional health center.

Hartford Hospital would assume responsibility for the Health Center's finances, which means that the Health Center would not return to the legislature for money to cover deficits, as it has done three times since 2000.

But the state would be responsible for labor costs. Under the plan, workers at the Health Center would remain state employees and those who are unionized would remain in unions. The state would pay the difference between the costs of their fringe benefits and those provided to hospital workers in the private sector $13 million a year.

Between that and the bonding costs for the new hospital, the state would pay $605 million over 10 years. Hartford Hospital would spend between $425 million and $565 million in that time for academic support, technology, research and building a new patient tower in downtown Hartford.

The plan also calls for collaborating with other area hospitals to increase their involvement with UConn's medical and dental schools and better coordinating research and health practices.

UConn officials described the plan as a way to bring the medical school to top-tier status, make the region a destination for health care and drive the area's economy. Without it, Hogan said, patients would turn to New York, Boston and other places for health care, Connecticut would face a shortage of doctors, the medical school would continue to struggle to attract faculty, and UConn could see its research funding a key factor in university rankings plummet.

Lawmakers, some of whom expressed excitement at the concept, raised questions about its cost and feasibility, and the loss of state control.

State Rep. Deborah Heinrich, D-Madison, took issue with the state being asked to cover part of the fringe benefits costs.

Unlike other state agencies, the Health Center is responsible for the cost of employees' fringe benefits, which are significantly more expensive than those at other hospitals.

Heinrich asked how Hartford Hospital could say it would cover the Health Center's deficits if it was leaving a major piece of the deficits to the state.

Hogan said the arrangement was a partnership, and that the state would pick up part of the responsibility, while Hartford Hospital would take care of everything else.

Jean Morningstar, the president of University Health Professionals AFT Local 3837, which represents 2,400 of the Health Center's 3,500 unionized employees, said she had questions about the workforce aspects of the plan, including what it would mean for public employees, who essentially would be working for a private employer.

Legislative leaders offered mixed responses.

Senate Republican leader John McKinney of Fairfield blasted the proposal as a "terrible plan," calling it unaffordable and unfair to other hospitals that also struggle. Even in better economic times, McKinney said, he was not certain that a new hospital was the solution because it would not address the underlying reasons for the Health Center's deficits.

"Maybe the University of Connecticut shouldn't be in the business of running a hospital," he said.

Democratic leaders were more receptive.

House Speaker Christopher Donovan, a Meriden Democrat, said the partnership could help the Health Center "get back on its feet" and become an economic driver for the state. He cautioned that it would be difficult to find the money for the plan, but that it was worth exploring so the state does not have to spend more money on the Health Center in the future. Federal stimulus money could help to free bonding money for the project, he said.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell's office could not be reached for comment.

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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