UConn faces grant competition

U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd drew criticism last year when he got a $100 million hospital grant inserted into the health reform bill. At the time, the University of Connecticut needed funds to remake its John Dempsey Hospital, but Dodd rejected claims that the narrowly worded grant was an earmark, noting that about a dozen states could apply for the money.

Now a handful of them have.

rell at UConn 3-10-10

Gov. M. Jodi Rell announcing the UConn expansion plan in March

In addition to Connecticut, which is counting on the $100 million for a plan to secure Dempsey’s future, at least four states have applied for the grant. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is expected to announce a decision in mid-December.

The University of Washington, which oversees medical education in Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, has applied for the grant. So has Oregon Health & Science University, which wants to expand its children’s hospital. The University of Mississippi Medical Center wants to put the funds toward a number of construction projects.

And the Indiana University School of Medicine wants to use the money toward the construction of a replacement teaching hospital for its county’s safety-net system, a $754 million project that received approval last year from 85 percent of county voters.

Connecticut has a $362 million plan to renovate and expand Dempsey Hospital, which hinges on the $100 million. The bulk of the project’s funding – $237 million in state bonding – cannot be released until the $100 million is secured. The remaining cost will be paid for by $25 million already issued to UConn.

The university is already moving ahead with designs for a new patient tower for Dempsey, and UConn School of Medicine Dean Dr. Cato Laurencin said officials are optimistic. The grant application included letters of support from the region’s hospitals, Gov. M. Jodi Rell and legislators.

“We have a very strong application,” said Laurencin, the university’s vice president for health affairs.

Dr. Cato Laurencin

Dr. Cato Laurencin

In the past, UConn officials have spoken about raising $100 million through philanthropy or other grants if the university does not get the health reform grant, although this week Laurencin downplayed the idea of not getting the grant.

“It’s not like we haven’t thought about any other plans, but the fact is right now we’re just focused on having this application go through,” he said.

“This is really something that’s very crucial for the future of the health center and very crucial for our regional goals of making the region a destination place for health care and a supersite for health care,” Laurencin added.

The plan could potentially solve a longstanding problem. Dempsey is considered too small and outdated to be financially viable, and the state has had to cover its deficits multiple times in the past decade.

Crafting a solution has proven difficult. Area hospitals have objected to past plans to replace Dempsey with a larger hospital on its Farmington campus or to partner with Hartford Hospital.

The current plan, which Rell signed into law in June, calls for building a $236 million patient tower and performing $96 million in renovations to the existing space.

It would add only a few beds to the hospital; many of the existing rooms are double occupancy, and the new space will allow for more private rooms. But the plan would allow Dempsey to use more beds for profitable services by transferring operations of the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, which tends to lose money, to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

Area hospitals will also get some of the money. $30 million would fund an institute for primary care at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, a simulation center at Hartford Hospital, a clinical trials unit at The Hospital of Central Connecticut and cancer treatment center in New Britain, and patient room renovations at Bristol Hospital. It will also fund institutes for nursing, eliminating health disparities and promoting research from labs to clinical trials.

UConn Health Center

John Dempsey Hospital’s Farmington campus at the UConn Health Center

Losing out on the $100 million means the state’s next governor could face the challenge of finding an affordable solution that other hospitals would embrace.

The candidates for governor said they’re rooting for the federal grant.

Republican Tom Foley acknowledged that Dempsey does not have enough beds to satisfy UConn’s goals for its teaching hospital.

“We need to resolve that issue and we need to take into account the overall needs of the citizens in terms of how many hospitals we have in the state and where they are and make sure that we’re spending dollars where it makes the most long-term sense for the state,” Foley said.

As for the current plan, Foley said, “if the federal funds aren’t there and it’s 300-and-some-million dollars, we simply can’t afford that right now.”

Democrat Dan Malloy has described the plan as a bed replacement project and said it is not a net job creator. But he said that without the federal funds, the state would need to develop a plan to keep the hospital, and the research and teaching associated with it, in working order.

“Do I have a plan for the moment about what we do? No,” Malloy said. “But do I recognize that the replacement of the beds is going to be an important part of what we need to do going forward? The answer is yes. And would I go well beyond it, given financial circumstances that hopefully will change in our favor, and hopefully spend more money on the research end of it as a jobs producer? That remains to be my desire as well.”

Independent Party candidate Tom Marsh said he would keep the plan on the table and focus on economic development and the relationship between the state’s academic research facilities and the private sector.

“A lot can be done that has nothing to do with bricks and mortar,” he said. “Proper planning and leadership, even over a five year period will either add relevance to the need for state investment or will prove that the ability to develop and implement a comprehensive working relationship between state funded research and private sector involvement is beyond the abilities of our governance.”