Malloy’s UConn health center plan passes first hurdle in Senate

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s $864 million proposal to renovate and expand the UConn Health Center in Farmington passed the state Senate Wednesday, 15 days after it was first announced.

Supporters of the bill cast the proposal as an urgently needed economic development plan that would create thousands of jobs while making the state a leader in bioscience research, not a repeat of past debates over the health center’s future or precarious financial situation.

“This is not a health center bailout bill. This is not a hospital bill. This is an economic development bill,” Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said during the 3 1/2 hour debate.

Opponents, meanwhile, brought up the issues that dominated debates over previous health center proposals: potential harm to competing hospitals, the health center’s history of running deficits, and questions about cost. They also questioned the jobs projections and raised concerns about the limited time legislators had to consider the proposal.

The bill passed 24 to 11, largely along party lines, and will now go to the House. Democrat Anthony Musto of Trumbull voted against the plan, while Republicans Kevin Witkos of Canton, Toni Boucher of Wilton and Jason Welch of Bristol voted for it.

Under Malloy’s plan, called Bioscience Connecticut, the state would fund construction of a new patient tower for UConn’s John Dempsey Hospital, a garage and outpatient center, and renovation of Dempsey’s existing patient tower and research facilities. It would also provide $25 million for initiatives at other area hospitals.

It would be paid for with $254 million in new bonding, $338 million in previously approved bonding and $69 million from the health center. Construction of the outpatient center would be funded by $203 million in private financing.

The plan also calls for increasing the size of the medical and dental school classes, hiring more scientists and establishing a loan forgiveness program for students who pursue primary care.

The plan could create 16,400 jobs by 2037, according to the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, including jobs at the health center, companies that grow out of health center research and businesses that the workers frequent. The construction is projected to create about 3,000 jobs a year from 2012 to 2018.

“At its core, this vision is about creating 16,000 high quality jobs for Connecticut,” said Bye, the co-chairwoman of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.

Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, called the project “the best single economic development initiative that I’ve seen,” and Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, predicted that it could pull the state out of recession.

Bye said the focus on jobs helped convince some Democrats who had been hesitant about the cost to support the plan.

One former critic, Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, said last week that the proposal could hurt the hospitals in Hartford and New Britain, and he warned Wednesday that “the delicate balance that exists” between the hospitals must be protected. But he voted for the plan.

“You don’t always get what you want, exactly the way you want it,” he said. “But I believe that Gov. Malloy has a vision not only for the health center in the University of Connecticut and this particular proposal, but one that has a vision for urban Connecticut as well.”

But Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, called the jobs projection “a big assumption.” And he said the project, along with plans for a busway between New Britain and Hartford, are “skyrocketing” the state’s debt. “This is another example of our appetite for spending,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, praised the plan’s focus on research, creating incubator space and growing the bioscience industry. But he criticized the plans to revamp Dempsey and questioned whether the UConn medical school needs its own hospital.

McKinney said he, too, wants construction workers to have jobs.

“But as much as I want to get them at work, I don’t know if I would vote for $864 million just to get them to work,” he said. “It has to be the right plan.”

Like several critics of the plan, McKinney pointed out his UConn connection: He’s a UConn law school graduate. Then he noted that the university has received $2.7 billion from taxpayers since 1996 and questioned why UConn would not put off other bonding projects to help pay for the health center plan.

“They do not have a blank check,” he said.

Other Republicans said the state can’t afford the project and criticized the speed at which the proposal has moved forward.

“We are doing something horribly in the wrong way here,” Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, said.

“Why can we not take two or three more months to analyze the data, study the reports, ask the questions that have to be asked and then make an intelligent, informed decision about this project?” he asked, adding that he might support the plan after a more thorough evaluation.

The proposal did not go through a public hearing. UConn and administration officials described the plan during a two-hour informational forum last week, but legislators were limited to one question each and the public was not allowed to weigh in.

Bye said complaints about the timing of the proposal overlook the lengthy debates over the health center’s future that already took place in the legislature in previous years. And she echoed comments of Malloy administration officials when she explained why it should be done now. “Our residents are clamoring for jobs,” she said. “I don’t believe people can wait.”

Some opponents also questioned the merit of putting money into a state-run hospital that could lure patients away from competing hospitals.

“We’re using taxpayer dollars to compete against those hospitals that are struggling,” McKinney said. He noted that the other hospitals are also subject to a new state tax, while Dempsey is exempt.

Previous proposals to address the health center’s financial woes have met with resistance from the hospitals that compete with Dempsey. A plan last year, announced by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, had the backing of the hospitals and included millions of dollars to fund initiatives at Hartford Hospital, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, Bristol Hospital and The Hospital of Central Connecticut. But that plan hinged on $100 million in federal funds that were never secured.

Malloy’s plan also funds the initiatives at the other hospitals and preserves the basic plan for Dempsey, although the outpatient center is new. Dempsey would grow from 224 beds to 234, but the plan would effectively leave the hospital with 50 new beds that could be used for profitable services because the operation of its 40-bed neonatal intensive care unit, which loses money, would be transferred to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

In a statement released after the vote, Malloy said the plan is aimed at improving health care, creating jobs and making the state a leader in an emerging industry.

“This is an aggressive, forward-thinking proposal that understands that, while Connecticut has a storied history as a leader in manufacturing and the insurance industry, we cannot rest on our laurels and allow the next wave of economic growth – in the field of bioscience – pass us by,” he said. “The state’s flagship public university and its Health Center must be looked at as more than just a school or just a hospital – we need to view them as economic drivers and ways in which we can leverage our education system into long-term, sustained economic growth.”