$352 million UConn Health Center plan counts on the clout of two lame ducks

FARMINGTON - An upbeat Gov. M. Jodi Rell framed a $352 million plan to improve the University of Connecticut Health Center as transforming the delivery of health care for "generations to come."

But the proposal rolled out Tuesday to a standing ovation by UConn staff and students relies on the influence of two lame ducks: Rell and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd.

To succeed, Rell must sell state legislators on diverting $227 million in state bonding from other projects, and Dodd needs to deliver $100 million now attached to a stalled health care reform bill.

Rell's task will be a challenge. Dodd's will require hitting a political trifecta: passing health reform, keeping the $100 million in the bill and then steering the money toward Connecticut.

rell at UConn 3-10-10

Gov. M. Jodi Rell outlines plans for improvements at UConn's Health Center as officials, staff and students look on

"It is unwise to rely upon or make any plan contingent upon $100 million in federal funding," said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield. "To my count, there at least three improbable events that have to occur to get that money."

Those concerns were pushed to the background Tuesday morning, when Rell stepped to a lectern in the lobby of the medical school. Staff and students in white medical coats watched from stairs and walkways overlooking the lobby.

"We have some pretty exciting news," Rell said. "That's the way I want to start out."

Occasionally interrupted by the soft trill of pagers, Rell announced that she and a coalition of hospitals are backing a plan to build a new hospital at the financially troubled UConn Health Center.

The proposal is the third floated over the past two years and is $100 million less than the previous version, which fell flat with Rell, many legislators and some competing hospitals.

Key to the plan is a new health care network involving former critics of efforts to rebuild the state's flagship medical and dental school, including Hartford Hospital, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center and Connecticut Children's Medical Center.

A new $236 million hospital would be the largest piece of a $352 million plan that also would include $96 million for renovations to academic and research facilities and $20 million for additional development at UConn and other network partners.

Rell and hospital officials pitched the project as an engine for economic development, saying it would create more than 5,000 new jobs and allow for larger class sizes at UConn's medical and dental schools.

She did not stint on superlatives.

"I believe it is an initiative that will transform the delivery of health care in the Greater Hartford area and, indeed, in the entire state for generations to come," Rell said. "And it will also lead to the creation of thousands of jobs -- not over night, over time. But that's the one mantra we've been talking about for two years."

"This is a landmark partnership," she said.

Rell was joined by UConn officials, led by President Michael Hogan and the chairman of the university's trustees, Larry McHugh.

In addition to the federal money and state bonding, the project would rely on $25 million for planning and design from the existing UConn 21st Century fund.

The plan would create a new hospital tower of at least 230 beds on the health center's Farmington campus and create a network connecting the Hartford region's major hospitals.

The network would seek designation by the National Institutes of Health of UConn as comprehensive cancer center, which would expand opportunities for the university to seek research funding and conduct clinical trials.

The region's neonatal intensive care unit would remain at Farmington, but it would be operated by the Connecticut Children's Medical Center as part of a regional children's health system.

Hartford Hospital would host a regional simulation center that would allow training for up to 2,000 medical professionals annually. St. Francis would host a regional primary care institute.

House Majority Leader Denise W. Merrill, D-Mansfield, whose district includes the main UConn campus in Storrs, said she would seek legislative support to redirect existing bond funding to the project.

"It'll be a challenge," said Merrill, a guest at the press conference. "There are 187 people you have to convince."

Some will have to be convinced that their own pet projects should wait while the state designates the new UConn Health Network as the state's major economic-development goal in an era of tight money, she said. Rell already has asked legislators to scrap $390 million in projects approved but not yet funded to keep the state from exceeding its credit limit.

Like Rell and Dodd, Merrill also is a lame duck: She is running for secretary of the state instead of seeking re-election to the General Assembly.

Rell briefed legislative leaders on the project Monday afternoon, but she asked them to keep it confidential. They were shown but not allowed to keep a summary of the plan.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, issued statements expressing cautious support, saying job-creation was a priority.

"I appreciate Gov. Rell's efforts to address this issue and look forward to working with her as the legislature analyzes the details," Williams said. "This gives us another reason in Connecticut to support President Obama's health care plan because it includes $100 million that the governor is relying on to help fund her proposal."

"Clearly, as the project is predicated on receipt of $100 million from the federal government, it is imperative that President Obama's health-care reform package that includes Senator Dodd's provision for those funds gets passed by the Congress," Donovan said.

But Rell's willingness to rely on the $100 million does not equate to support for the health reform.

"The governor is hopeful that Sen. Dodd can secure the $100 million, even if it means including it in a separate bill," said Donna Tommelleo, a spokeswoman for Rell.

Dodd was unavailable for comment. A spokesman said that senator would continue to work for the funds.

McKinney and House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, were more skeptical than Williams and Donovan.

"I have a very mixed and confused reaction," Cafero said.

He said was still analyzing the plan, but he was dubious about restructuring the state's bond package in the hopes of winning what he described as a $100 million long shot.

The provenance of the federal funds also made Cafero unenthusiastic: It was one of the many spending provisions inserted into health care reform legislation by senators that helped fuel a public outcry.

"At the time, it was considered a political gift to Sen. Dodd because he was in the fight of his political life," Cafero said.

Dodd has since given up plans for re-election.

"So I have to wish for something I don't want in order to wish for something I do want?" Cafero asked.

McKinney praised Rell for holding out for a less expensive version of a plan to rebuild the health center.

Passing the required changes to bonding authorization will take some salesmanship on Rell's part, he said.

"Is it going to take some strong leadership on her part? Yes it is," McKinney said. "Is she capable of doing that? I believe she is."

McHugh, the president of the university trustees, expressed no mixed feelings or doubts at the press conference. He ignored warnings from Rell and Merrill that the federal money may be difficult to obtain.

"I can guarantee you it is going to get done," he said, as though promising the governor her legacy would include a new hospital.

Rell was asked if she considered the project a legacy.

"It hasn't passed yet," she replied.

Would she like it to be?

"I'm not worried about legacy projects," Rell said. "I'm worried about enhancing the status of this hospital. It's a great resource for our state."

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