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Legislative committee requests hospital study

by Kristina Goodnough - March 19, 2007

The General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee last week offered an alternative to the Health Center’s proposal to replace the John Dempsey Hospital.

It approved an amended bill that provides additional financial assistance for the hospital, and requires another state office to study the justification for clinical expansion in the region.

Under the bill passed by the committee, the appropriation to the Health Center would increase by $10.5 million this year and next, to help cover the cost of fringe benefits for hospital employees.

These benefits are higher than those paid by private hospitals because John Dempsey Hospital is a state agency.

The committee also asked the state Office of Health Care Access to conduct a comprehensive study of the long-term need for hospital beds in the region.

“While this is not the outcome we wanted, it is progress,” says Dr. Peter Deckers, executive vice president for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.

“We’re grateful for the recognition of the Health Center’s additional fringe benefit burden. But closing the academic gap and an expanded, modernized hospital remain essential to our future.”

The Higher Education Committee’s action is the first step in a long legislative process that will involve several other committees, before action by the full House and Senate.

University officials are proposing construction of a new 352-bed hospital to replace and expand John Dempsey Hospital as a step crucial to its education and research mission.

“The quality of the medical and dental schools is directly related to the quality of the hospital,” which has had no major upgrades since it opened more than 30 years ago, says Deckers.

“To remain viable long term and to be financially self-sustaining, we must expand.”

In recent years, hospital revenues have been used to fill the “academic gap,” the difference between the medical and dental schools’ revenues and expenses.

That gap has increased, as academic expenses have risen by about 5 percent annually while the state’s appropriation to cover those expenses has remained steady at about 1.1 percent.

However, the hospital cannot continue to support the schools, Deckers says; and, at its current size, the hospital is not financially viable in the long term.

The expansion proposal, which was approved by the University’s Board of Trustees and the Health Center’s Board of Directors, received a full day of testimony and hearings before the higher education committee.

Support came from a broad range of doctors, nurses, students, patients, and the leadership of several unions, including the president of University Health Professionals.

Opposition was expressed, however, by representatives of other area hospitals, who claimed a new hospital would siphon off their patients and hurt their bottom lines.

“We look forward to working with OCHA and with legislative leaders to justify the need for an appropriately-sized hospital,” Deckers says, “and we are confident the facts will fully support our cause.”  

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