Malloy’s UConn Health Center gets final approval on the fast track

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to revamp the UConn Health Center is the fourth attempt in five years to revitalize the financially-troubled Farmington medical campus. And after receiving final legislative approval early Wednesday, it might actually happen.

Past plans have failed because they were too costly, inspired opposition from competing hospitals or relied on federal funds that never came through. At $864 million, Malloy’s plan costs hundreds of millions of dollars more than the previous proposals, and its swift course through the legislature–three weeks from announcement to final passage–drew complaints from Republicans.

But it passed the House 97 to 45 shortly after 2:15 a.m. Wednesday, and, having cleared the Senate last week, now awaits the governor’s signature. It appears to have no major obstacles left to clear.

In a statement after the vote, Malloy said the plan “sends a clear message and plants a very firm flag in terms of Connecticut’s commitment to being a leader in the bioscience industry.”

“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,” he said.

Debates over the future of the UConn Health Center have become something of a chronic condition in the legislature, and some in health care have come to view new plans with skepticism.

Malloy and legislative supporters sought to distance this plan, called Bioscience Connecticut, from past attempts to stabilize the health center’s financial situation. They pitched it as an economic development measure that would create construction jobs almost immediately and, in the longer term, make the state a leader in bioscience.

The plan calls for building a new patient tower at UConn’s John Dempsey Hospital, renovating existing hospital and research space, and creating 28,000 square feet of incubator space for start-up companies. It also would increase the size of the medical and dental schools by 30 percent, create a loan-forgiveness program for students who pursue primary care, and fund $25 million in initiatives at other area hospitals.

It requires $254 million in new bonding, as well as $338 million in previously approved bonding and $69 million from the health center. Another $203 million, to fund construction of an outpatient center on the health center campus, is expected to come from private financing, but the plan doesn’t rely on that piece to move forward.

Projections from the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis estimate that the plan will create about 3,000 construction jobs a year from 2012 to 2018, and 16,400 jobs by 2037.

“This will put people back to work now and sustain economic growth for our state,” said Rep. Roberta B. Willis, D-Salisbury, co-chairwoman of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee. “If Connecticut does not take some aggressive action now, initiatives to change structural characteristics of our economy, tomorrow will look a lot like today: little or no job growth, continuing to see the outward migration of our young people, and we’ll continue to experience slow growth of our tax revenues.”

Critics have questioned the jobs projections and said the plan is too costly. Lawmakers raised concerns about the approval process–the plan did not go through a public hearing–and questioned why the state should put more money into Dempsey Hospital, which has required state funding to cover deficits four times since 2000.

Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton, described the plan as “rolling the dice,” based on economic projections by a center based at UConn. The state already has a medical research corridor based at Yale, Perillo said, and he wondered whether Connecticut has room for a second.

Perillo also asked why a new patient tower for Dempsey was needed since fewer people are being admitted to hospitals.

“I’m not sure we need this new tower,” he said. “I’m not sure we need this hospital at all.”

The new tower would allow the hospital to replace double rooms with single rooms. Dempsey’s bed count would grow from 224 to 234 under the plan, but the hospital would effectively get 50 new beds to use for profitable services because the operation of Dempsey’s 40-bed neonatal intensive care unit would be transferred to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

Of the plan, Perillo said, “At best, this is wishful thinking. At worst, this is careless thinking.”

Rep. John Hetherington, R-New Canaan, said the projected benefits “seem rather speculative.”

“I think we really need to exercise some prudence in what we put into what has been described as a vision,” he said. “Well, it is a vision. Whether that vision turns out to be reality, we’ll have to see.”

Undecided on the plan when debate started, Rep. Steven Mikutel, D-Griswold, said he wanted to believe in the plan because he wants educated young people to have a reason to stay in Connecticut.

But he expressed wariness from past economic development plans that he and other legislators believed in–Adriaen’s Landing, a mixed use development in Hartford based around the Connecticut Convention Center, and an effort to bring the New England Patriots to Connecticut. Those had no real substance, he said.

“But there’s something here about the bioscience field that is real,” Mikutel said, noting that it offers hope for improving people’s lives. “I don’t think it’s a pipe dream like we’ve had before.”

He voted for the bill.

Others who were more bullish about the plan emphasized the potential to create high-paying jobs.

“I can’t leave church, the grocery or walk down my street when my neighbors don’t ask us about creating jobs,” said Rep. Timothy Larson, D-East Hartford, who asked when construction could start.

Rep. Brian Becker, D-West Hartford, compared the proposal to a $362 million plan from last year that passed the legislature but stalled when the federal funding it required didn’t come through. The public cost of Malloy’s plan is only about $250 million more, but it is projected to create seven times as many jobs, he said. “This is a great idea, and one we should support,” he said.

Rep. Pamela Z. Sawyer, R-Bolton, said she supports the project, if not the method that was used to bring it through the legislature. The state needs jobs, she said, and having available incubator space will serve as a “drawing card” to attract the attention of researchers around the world.

Rep. Sean Williams, R-Watertown, said he wanted to support the proposal, but needed to first hear how it would affect his local hospitals and wanted more time to examine the plan. Williams said he was troubled by the approval process, and suggested that lawmakers return in special session to address the proposal, rather than vote without a formal public hearing process. He called an informational forum held on the plan, during which legislators were limited to one question each, insulting.

In response to concerns about the speed of the approval process, Willis said that most of the plan involved ideas that legislators have previously discussed. “This is just grander and bigger and bolder,” she said.