The University of Connecticut Health Center campus in Farmington can look forward to a new patient tower, central Connecticut a number of new medical initiatives, and area hospitals an ambitious new partnership under a plan that won final legislative approval Tuesday.
The Senate passed the $362 million measure in a 28-7 vote, following a House vote several days ago. The bill now heads to Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who has pledged to sign it.
The state legislature and the past two governors have bailed out the financially troubled center four times since 2000, and the bill is expected to help the 35-year-old hospital by creating room for more expensive beds that would generate more revenue, said Sen. Mary Ann Handley, D-Manchester. The center includes John Dempsey Hospital as well as UConn's medical, dental and graduate research programs.
The bill would improve Dempsey by building a new patient tower, increasing the total number of beds from 230 to 234. Forty neonatal intensive care unit beds would be transferred to the Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford.
Previous improvement plans were opposed by area hospitals. This one, however, generated little opposition because it provides benefits for those hospitals. The bill calls for enterprise zones in Hartford, Farmington, Bristol, and New Britain in an effort to create jobs. It would also create a simulation center at Hartford Hospital, add a primary care institute at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, and create an institute for health disparities.
Plans also include a state-created network of area hospitals regarding cancer care and improvements at the Hospital of Central Connecticut.
Senate Republican leader John McKinney of Fairfield, who graduated from UConn Law School, voted against the bill. He said the university's plans to expand the hospital complex in the suburbs goes against all smart-growth strategies that would call for expanding in downtown Hartford. The tower, he said, is simply not needed.
"I am frustrated by the unwillingness of people here and in the executive branch to hold up a mirror and criticize the process and demand better," McKinney said on the Senate floor.
McKinney added that the legislature has already been highly generous to UConn, providing more than $2 billion toward construction costs through the years to transform the Storrs campus.
"When does it stop?" asked McKinney, his voice rising. "$3 billion? $4 billion? $5 billion?"
A UConn projection says plans included in the bill would create 6,800 new jobs by 2030 and 7,400 new jobs by 2040 by establishing the bio-science enterprise zones around the area hospitals to attract researchers and entrepreneurs.
The state would borrow money by selling bonds to pay for most of the project. It would also rely on a $100 million in federal funds through the work of U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd. Connecticut, however, is not guaranteed the federal dollars. It is a competitive grant, and if the state does not get the federal funds, UConn would be responsible for securing the $100 million by 2015, or the project would cease.
Republican senators said they were concerned about the price tag, and they offered an amendment that would have eliminated the new patient tower from the plans. Doing so would have saved the state $207 million in bonds, or $315.7 million in principal and interest payments over 20 years, according to the legislature's budget office.
"We need to help our area hospitals without breaking the bank," said Sen. Dan Debicella, R-Shelton.
The bill's backers said the center must have a new tower to carry out other parts of the plan. The amendment, which failed 23-9, would have destroyed the entire proposal, said Sen. Donald DeFronzo, D-New Britain.
Republicans proposed a second amendment that also failed. It would have prevented the state from spending $25 million in bond funds on planning and design for a new tower until the $100 million in full is secured and until the State Bond Commission provides the money for the UConn health network initiatives.
Under the bill, if the money is not there and the project ends, the state would lose money because it would already have paid for the plans, said McKinney. "It seems like a bad bet," he said.
Starting the planning process shows the federal government that UConn and the state are committed to the project, and it would help UConn if it needs to find funding, Handley said.
While some would wish that the health center campus had been built in Hartford 35 years ago, the reality is that legislators must now deal with the existing infrastructure in Farmington, said Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn. The hospital plans have many benefits, and improving UConn's medical program is just one, he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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