Malloy health center plan stresses research, job creation

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Tuesday announced plans for an $864 million renovation and expansion for the UConn Health Center that he said could create thousands of jobs and position the state as a leader in bioscience.

It's the fourth plan for the health center in the past five years, but Malloy said his proposal is substantially different. For one thing, it's nearly twice as big. And he pitched it as an economic development initiative, not just a plan to stabilize the university's hospital.

"What we're talking about today is a different vision of the future, one which allows us to tap into the great work that's already been done on this campus, on the campus at Storrs and on the campus at Yale," Malloy told a crowd at the health center's Farmington campus. "In some senses, we are creating our own Research Triangle in our little state of Connecticut."

Malloy's plan, called Bioscience Connecticut, preserves several pieces of a plan from last year to renovate and expand UConn's John Dempsey Hospital and fund initiatives involving other area hospitals. It also would increase the health center's capacity for bioscience research, add more clinician-scientists and basic scientists, build an outpatient center, increase the class sizes of the medical and dental schools by 30 percent and create loan forgiveness programs for graduates who pursue primary care.

"Let me say very clearly, Bioscience Connecticut is entirely different from prior proposals that involved the health center. Could not be more different," incoming UConn President Susan Herbst said. "While they were principally in the past intended to secure the health center's financial footing, this initiative is primarily focused on using the health center to achieve state economic and health care objectives, creating well-paying jobs and linking the university, the economy and public health."

The health center, which includes the UConn medical and dental schools, John Dempsey Hospital and research laboratories, has run multimillion-dollar deficits several times in the past decade--although its finances have stabilized recently--and UConn leaders have said Dempsey is too small and outdated to be financially viable. Previous plans to address its shortcomings have met with opposition from other area hospitals, which compete fiercely for privately insured patients.

Malloy criticized the previous plans as "too small, too late, too little," and said they did not do enough for the economy.

His plan would be funded with $254 million in new bonding, $338 million in previously approved bonding, and $69 million from the health center, expected to come from its revenues and fundraising. Another $203 million for an ambulatory care center would come from private financing.

More than a third of the money--$318 million--would go toward building a new patient tower and garage. Another $318 million would be used to renovate the existing tower and research space.

Like last year's plan, which other area hospitals supported, the proposal would not substantially increase the number of beds at Dempsey, although it would allow the hospital to devote more beds to profitable services by transferring operation of its neonatal intensive care unit to Connecticut Children's Medical Center.

Malloy's plan also continues funding--$25 million--for the "UConn Health Network," a series of initiatives involving area hospitals that was included in last year's plan. The initiatives include 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 renovations to patient rooms at Bristol Hospital.

Bristol Hospital President and CEO Kurt Barwis said that if Malloy continues to support the previous deal with the area hospitals, he would support it too.

"I think that's a really good thing for him to do," Barwis said.

Through a spokeswoman, Clarence Silvia, president and CEO of The Hospital of Central Connecticut, declined to comment because he had not been briefed on the plan. Other hospital leaders did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Focus on jobs

Malloy cited projections that the plan would create 3,000 construction jobs a year through 2018 and 16,400 new jobs by 2037, with an $4.6 billion increase in personal income in 2037.

He pitched the plan as a jobs initiative. The first people to speak after the governor were Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith and Bruce Lydem, district business manager for the New England Regional Council of Carpenters.

"This project has to happen," Lydem said. "It's a stimulus package for the construction workers in Connecticut."

Other lawmakers and university official touted benefits that were promised under previous plans: Increasing caliber of the medical and dental schools, producing more doctors and dentists who stay in Connecticut, helping the university bring in federal research funding, and making the Hartford region a destination for health care.

Several said they believed Malloy's plan had a chance of becoming a reality where others have failed, in part because of the backing from the governor. Of the three previous plans, only last year's had support from the governor. It was the only one to pass the legislature, but stalled when $100 million in anticipated federal funding did not come through.

Keith Inrig, first vice president of University Health Professionals Local 3837, which represents health center workers, said he was encouraged by Malloy's support. House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, and Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, also joined Malloy at the announcement.

"It's a true vision for the state of Connecticut, not just for the hospital," Inrig said. He called previous proposals "band aids."

Not everyone was pleased with the plan. Republican leaders questioned how the plan would be paid for and suggested that if it requires new bonding, some other borrowing should be canceled.

"Especially when we are in the shape we're in, when we're asking our citizenry to come up with yet another $1.8 billion in additional taxes just to pay the bills and you add to those bills and add to those bills, it's not fair, it's not right," House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said.

Cafero described the plan as an attempt to re-engineer the proposal as an economic development package after failing to get the money to make the last plan work. If the plan didn't require additional state borrowing, he said, it would be worth consideration.

"You can't look at it in a vacuum and therefore we cannot afford it at this time," he said.

Asked during the press conference about Republicans who said the plan was too expensive, Malloy said, "They're wrong." Other states have made improvements in their educational infrastructure, he said, but Connecticut has not at the health center.

"We're playing catch up right now," he said. "I refuse to be the governor of the state that would allow its medical school to drop in ranking. I refuse to be the governor of a state that would allow its dental school to lose its pre-eminent position. I refuse to be the governor of the state that would allow other states to take our jobs and then go unanswered."

Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, who has been critical of the previous plans to replace or expand Dempsey, said the state should be investing in the university's research capabilities and in incubator space. But the hospital isn't necessary to improve academics or its research, he said, and the state shouldn't be putting money into it.

"My frustration is less with the additions that Gov. Malloy's added and more with what is the original plan of building a new hospital, and that's still going forward," he said.

Both McKinney and Cafero said they expected the plan to pass.

More than buildings needed

Barwis, who has worked in the medical device industry and raised money for a start-up, praised the focus on research. But he warned that it will take consistent commitment and energy for the state to create more than just the buildings.

"You have to create the capital financing part of it and all the other structures, not just the physical space and the folks that come up with the ideas," he said.

UConn floated the first major rebuilding plan for the health center in 2007. It called for for building a new $495 million, 352-bed hospital to replace Dempsey, which has 224 beds. Other area hospitals, worried about a new hospital in the wealthy Farmington valley, joined forces to defeat the proposal.

In 2009, UConn proposed a merger with Hartford Hospital that would have created a two-campus "University Hospital." The state would have to foot the bill for a new $475 million hospital to replace Dempsey and pay some of the ongoing labor costs. The plan drew opposition from Bristol and St. Francis hospitals, and, ultimately, from then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who dismissed it as too costly.

Then, last year, Rell offered a proposal that all the area hospitals agreed to: a $362 million plan to renovate and expand Dempsey that called for just a handful of new beds and included money for education and research initiatives at the other hospitals.

But there was a catch: It could only move forward if the state secured $100 million in federal or outside funding. Officials put their hopes in a $100 million a grant that then-U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd had inserted into the federal health reform law. But the money went to Ohio, not Connecticut.

Laurence A. Tanner, president of the Capital Area Health Consortium who retired last year as President and CEO of The Hospital of Central Connecticut, said he believes Malloy's plan has a better chance of becoming a reality than the previous plans. But he said much of the work still lies ahead.

"We all thought it could have happened last time, and all we needed was just that simple $100 million that people felt that Dodd had set up, and look what happened," he said. "Let's hope that this one will be the last time in decades that we have to have a press conference."