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UConn Health Center Construction Project Clears Committee Hurdle

Arielle Levin Becker

April 24, 2010

A $362 million construction and renovation project for the University of Connecticut Health Center cleared another legislative committee Friday.

The finance, revenue and bonding committee passed a "shell bill," not the final wording that would become law if the proposal passes the legislature. The vote allows the matter to move forward while officials work out the details of the proposal, which has undergone changes since Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced it last month.

Those changes include adding $10 million to the price tag for initiatives involving other area hospitals, and expanding a "biosciences enterprise zone" proposed for Hartford to include Farmington, New Britain and Bristol.

The proposal calls for a $236 million patient tower at the university's John Dempsey Hospital, a $96 million renovation of existing space and $30 million for programs involving other area hospitals.

Supporters say the plan will allow Dempsey to achieve financial stability the hospital has run multimillion-dollar deficits in recent years and would strengthen UConn's medical and dental schools, enhance collaboration among area hospitals, and create thousands of jobs.

The area hospitals would collaborate through the creation of the "UConn Health Network." The initial plan included a simulation center at Hartford Hospital and a primary care institute at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center. More recently, the network has been expanded to include a cancer treatment center at the Hospital of Central Connecticut and renovations to patient rooms at Bristol Hospital. It also calls for an institute for nursing excellence at UConn.

The plan hinges on $100 million in federal money that could come from a grant in the health reform law. Connecticut would have to apply for the funds an estimated 13 other states are eligible but UConn leaders are optimistic about the state's chances.

The rest of the money would come from $237 million in state bonding and $25 million in funds already allocated to UConn.

The initial plan required the state to cancel some bonding projects that already had been authorized in order to stay within the state's bonding limit. More recently, UConn leaders agreed to reschedule university projects that had already been approved, which would allow the state to sell bonds for the construction and renovation costs without having to de-authorize bonds for other projects.

Still, the $30 million for initiatives with the other hospitals would require canceling bonds.

State Sen. Donald DeFronzo, D-New Britain, said before the vote that he appreciated the recent outreach from bill supporters to the New Britain and Bristol communities. But DeFronzo noted that legislators recently passed a bill to de-authorize more than $400 million in bonds, none of which came from the UConn 2000 construction program, and suggested that the university consider giving up some projects, too.

"If we're going to be talking about cancellations, we need to be talking about cancellations within the UConn 2000 program as well," he said.

UConn leaders have said their bond funds have been committed to needed projects.

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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