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Deckers Updates Faculty, Staff
on Latest in Health Center Debate
University Leaders Testify to Education Committee
January 31, 2000

A state agency report that was critical of the Health Center and suggested oversight of its finances should be turned over to a state government board received a quick and critical response from University leaders.

The report was published Jan. 24 by the Office of Health Care Access, Raymond Gorman commissioner, and was compiled after a two-month series of meetings involving legislators, state officials from OHCA and the Office of Policy and Management, officials from local hospitals and Health Center officials. The report was intended to inform the legislature of the causes and issues concerning the Health Center's financial deficit, which the most recent estimate puts at $21 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2000.

"The report is at best, inaccurate and, at worst, atrocious sensationalism," said Peter J. Deckers, dean of the medical school. "In my opinion the report serves only to advance what I believe is the now-overt agenda of OHCA and its commissioner, specifically, the regulation of all clinical programs and the downsizing of hospital beds and other hospital services within the Greater Hartford region."

Deckers talked about the report and the status of the Health Center in meetings held last week with Health Center faculty and staff. Deckers has scheduled frequent meetings since he took over leadership of the Health Center when Chancellor Leslie Cutler stepped down in October.

Despite the report, he was optimistic about the future: "I believe we are going to come out of this a lot better than we went in," he said. "There are many committed to the well being of the Health Center and that includes legislators, the public, our donors, and our patients."

The OHCA report suggested that clinical initiatives in cardiology, same day surgery and psychiatry were undertaken without receiving health care agency approval under a Certificate of Need process. The report was critical of business arrangements in anesthesiology and obstetrics and gynecology, and recommended establishment of an oversight board representing "the interests of legislators, regulators and the Office of Policy & Management to oversee the fiscal operations and programmatic activities of the Health Center."

Deckers said, "The proposed creation of an oversight board is an insult to the UConn Board of Trustees." He charged the agency and the commissioner were maneuvering to gain control of regional health care planning and said their efforts amounted to "intrusive regulation."

Support for the Health Center has been gaining momentum in the state legislature. The OHCA report followed an announcement Jan. 21 in which Democratic leaders pledged their support. House Majority Leader Moira K. Lyons, D-Stamford, and Senate President Kevin B. Sullivan, D-West Hartford, said the leadership thought perhaps as much as $12.5 million in state money could be available to fill the Health Center's deficit until a more secure financial footing could be arranged.

Governor John Rowland announced Jan. 25 that he too, supported interim financing to cover the Health Center's deficit. The governor proposed using a portion of the state's projected surplus as a one-time payment to help balance the books.

The legislature would have to approve any supplemental appropriation when it meets in session Feb. 9 to May 3, but the support of the legislative leadership and the governor makes the appropriation more likely.

Deckers said the money the political leaders were talking about was similar to a temporary checkbook. "I expect this interim money will be a line of credit the Health Center could write checks against, and then have to justify," he said. "Frankly, I welcome this support."

The Health Center's budget deficit, worse this year than last, is a result of declining federal support due to reduced Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements and lowered managed care and insurance payments.

Efforts to fix the Health Center's budget problems include an aggressive program of cost control; staff reductions, improving efficiencies through consolidation and integration, and improving revenues through reoriented clinical initiatives and increased grantsmanship.

Deckers said the strategic effort to obtain additional revenue by hiring world-class faculty and researchers who would be successful in obtaining grants was paying off. The Health Center had $10 million more in public and private grants in fiscal year 2000 than it did the year before, he said.

The OHCA report was also discussed during a hearing before the Education Committee of the General Assembly on Jan. 26. President Philip E. Austin told the committee the report contains "inaccurate and misleading statements." He said the Health Center had participated in OHCA work groups, yet "unfortunately, their report totally disregarded the Health Center's unique role in teaching and research."

The focus of the hearing, scheduled long before the OHCA report was published, was to present to the committee the educational aspects of the Health Center's mission. Officials told legislators the hospital is intertwined with research and education.

David Papermaster, John A. and Florence Mattern Solomon Chair in Vision Biology and Eye Diseases, said he joined the Health Center from Harvard Medical School in 1997 because of the unparalleled opportunities for advancing his research. Lack of support for the medical school and the hospital will cause the best and brightest to go elsewhere, he said. Without the hospital,"the entire enterprise will lose its competitive edge."

Papermaster was one of a number of faculty, clinicians, students, and patients who testified, in addition to top University administrators.

Pat Keefe