UConn Health Center project approved

Over Republican objections, the Senate Tuesday night gave final approval to a $362 million plan favored by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to build a new hospital tower and research facilities at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.

The legislation would make the financially troubled UConn Health Center part of a regional health network and underwrite improvements to network hospitals in Hartford, New Britain and Bristol.

The project is dependent on the state successfully competing for $100 million in federal funds that Sen. Christopher J. Dodd inserted in the federal health reform law to go with $262 million in state dollars, including $237 million in borrowing.

Red and white coats

Rell at UConn Health Center. (file photo)

The House approved the project Saturday night, 139 to 34, with 17 Democrats and 17 Republicans in opposition. The Senate vote was 28 to 7, with Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, and six other Republicans opposed.

One Republican who applauded passage was the governor.

“Tonight’s vote represents a critical leap forward – not just for a state-of-the-art John Dempsey Hospital in Farmington but for a health network with incredible reach throughout Connecticut and thousands of new jobs that will be associated with the network and the hospital,” Rell said.

McKinney said the project was a too-expensive investment in an aging health-care facility that should be located in Hartford, near existing teaching hospitals, and not in suburban Farmington.

“Is this plan perfect? Of course not,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.

But it will elevate the University of Connecticut’s medical school into the top ranks and generate 5,000 jobs, he said.

Rell concurred with the Democratic leader.

“We are taking steps to put UConn’s schools of medicine and dentistry into the top tier of academics and research. We are moving to increase classroom and lab space for those students and offset the shortages we expect in those essential professions,” she said. “And we are setting the stage for enormous improvements in the health care we provide and tremendous growth in the number of people that industry employs.”

The proposal is the third floated over the past two years and is $100 million less than the previous version, which fell flat with Rell, many legislators and some competing hospitals.

Key to the plan is the network involving former critics of efforts to rebuild the state’s flagship medical and dental school, including Hartford Hospital, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

A new hospital would be the largest piece of a plan that also would include $96 million for renovations to academic and research facilities and $20 million for additional development at UConn and other network partners.

Rell and hospital officials pitched the project as an engine for economic development, saying it would create more than 5,000 new jobs and allow for larger class sizes at UConn’s medical and dental schools.

In unveiling the plan in March, Rell did not stint on superlatives.

“I believe it is an initiative that will transform the delivery of health care in the Greater Hartford area and, indeed, in the entire state for generations to come,” Rell said. “And it will also lead to the creation of thousands of jobs — not over night, over time. But that’s the one mantra we’ve been talking about for two years.”