Construction workers turn out to back UConn Health Center plan


Ed Reilly of the Iron Workers Union interrupts hearing.

Hearings on the near-perennial proposals to revamp the UConn Health Center tend to draw doctors, university officials and hospital administrators, with testimony about the university and area hospitals.

This year, as lawmakers considered Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s $864 million renovation and expansion plan, a good portion of the audience was wearing hardhats. And in response to questions about the plan or why it is being pushed so quickly, they had one answer: Jobs.

“Why can’t this wait?” Higher Education Committee Co-chairwoman Roberta B. Willis, D-Salisbury, asked, rhetorically.

“I need a job,” someone in the audience called out.

Thursday’s discussion was an informational forum, not a public hearing. Lawmakers were limited to one question each, and the public wasn’t supposed to weigh in at all. At one point, however, Ed Reilly, business manager for Iron Workers Local 15, stood up in the audience to explain his support for the proposal after a lawmaker questioned it. “We want the jobs created by it,” he said, to applause.

When told his outburst was inappropriate, Reilly replied, “It was inappropriate. Please forgive me. This is an economic need for our people.”

The proposal, announced last week, calls for renovating and expanding UConn’s John Dempsey Hospital, building a new outpatient center on the health center’s Farmington campus, and renovating existing research space to increase the health center’s capacity for bioscience research.

It would be funded with $338 million in previously authorized bonds, $254 million in new bonding and $69 million from the health center. The outpatient center would be paid for with $203 in private financing.

UConn leaders and Malloy administration officials described the plan as a way to create jobs and make the region a leader in bioscience research while attracting top scientists–and their research funding–to the university. And they said it needs to happen now.

Several lawmakers professed support for the plan, but several questioned why it is being pushed forward without a public hearing and with several questions unanswered, including about its effect on other area hospitals and details about its cost and potential economic impact.

“My one regret is the clock is ticking and we really do not have the time we need on this issue,” Sen. Joan V. Hartley, D-Waterbury said.

She asked when the other hospitals would have a chance to comment on the plan in a public forum.

Rep. John E. Piscopo, R-Thomaston, said lawmakers felt a bit blindsided by the plan, which was announced with three weeks left in the legislative session. Ordinarily, he said, there would be more time to examine a plan to spend so much taxpayer money.

“We would take a lot of the session on a project this big, to vet,” Piscopo said.

Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman said the process for the proposal is not what would normally be used, and she apologized. The administration took office in January, and it took time to develop the plan. But the state needs jobs, she said.

This is a good time to pursue large construction projects because people need jobs and the cost to build is as good as it will be, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes said.

Postponing the plan for a year would be devastating to people who would be working on it, he added, drawing applause from the crowd.

Sen. John W. Fonfara, D-Hartford, criticized the proposal for funding a new patient tower at Dempsey, giving it a leg up on hospitals in Hartford, New Britain and Bristol that compete for the same privately insured patients. The other hospitals haven’t been cheering the proposal, he noted.

“The silence has been deafening,” he said. “The fear that is resonating in those communities is substantial.”

UConn officials said Malloy’s plan preserves features of a plan from last year that the area hospitals supported.

Last year’s plan, announced by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, represented a truce of sorts among the hospitals, some or all of which had opposed previous proposals to fix the health center’s precarious financial situation. Rell’s plan included money for initiatives at each hospital. In addition, it would not have significantly increased the number of beds at Dempsey, although the hospital would be able to use more beds for profitable services because operation of the money-losing neonatal intensive care unit would be transferred to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. The plan was contingent on getting $100 million in federal funding that did not come through.

Malloy’s proposal preserves those portions of the plan, including $25 million for the other hospitals, but would add an outpatient center on the health center’s campus. Hospitals have been building outpatient centers in the region, particularly in wealthy Farmington Valley suburbs. Dr. Cato Laurencin, UConn medical school dean and vice president for health affairs, said the outpatient center would be used to replace two aging outpatient buildings on the Farmington campus and to house the university’s dental clinics. Some space would also be used for new clinicians.

Unlike last year, when the leaders of each hospital attended Rell’s announcement and testified in support of the plan, the hospitals have not been outspoken about Malloy’s proposal.

Timothy Bannon, the governor’s chief of staff, said the governor met with officials of the three Hartford hospitals: Hartford Hospital, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center and the Connencticut Children’s Medical Center.

Dr. Rocco Orlando, chief medical officer at Hartford Hospital, praised the plan’s boldness and its potential to produce jobs, spur research and make the area a bioscience hub. But Orlando said he and his colleagues have questions about the proposal, particularly about the outpatient center and how the money will be allocated.

“We’re obviously very concerned about what the potential impact could be on the urban hospitals, the safety net hospitals in Hartford and New Britain, in particular,” he said. Hartford Hospital is now affiliated with The Hospital of Central Connecticut, which has campuses in New Britain and Southington.

Orlando said officials are talking with the governor’s office and UConn leadership.

“In terms of what actually is going to be done and planned, it’s early in terms of the level of detail that’s been released,” he said. “But the time remaining in the current legislative session is short.”

Bannon said the revised plan changes nothing about UConn’s relationship with the other area hospitals, as defined last year by the deal cut by the Rell Administration.

“It is the same, thoroughly vetted plan,” Bannon said.

During Thursday’s forum, several lawmakers asked about the financing of the proposal and its potential economic impact. Administration officials have said it will create 16,400 jobs–including indirect jobs, such as positions at businesses that health center workers would frequent–by 2037 and $4.6 billion in personal income. It is projected to create an average of 3,000 construction jobs a year from 2012 to 2018.

“We need to have a lot more detailed information before we can make an intelligent decision about whether we can support this or not,” Sen. Leonard Suzio, R-Meriden, said. “In the investment and banking world, you wouldn’t even be here right now.”

Rep. Robert J. Kane, R-Watertown, questioned how the project would affect the state’s bond rating. Noting Dempsey’s chronic financial problems, he asked, “Why…are we throwing good money after bad?”

Barnes said the plan makes investments in job creation and the future of the medical school, improving the health center’s operating condition.

The project is not expected to have an appreciable effect on the state’s bond rating, Barnes said, in part because school construction is tapering off, allowing the state to borrow for other projects without increasing the overall level of bonding.

Others were more eager to see the project begin, like Rep. Timothy D. Larson, D-East Hartford, who said he can’t walk down his street without someone asking him for help finding work.

“I actually applaud the governor for his expediency,” he said. “We need jobs like no one else’s business.”

Mark Pazniokas contributed to this report.