Will Governor Dare to Make UConn Health Center Solvent?

Chris Powell

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When government officials face a problem of administration whose solution will cause great controversy, they typically appoint a study committee or hire a consultant to provide political cover for whatever will have to be at least proposed. That’s what Governor Lamont and the University of Connecticut President Radenka Maric have agreed to do in anticipation of more big deficits at the UConn Health Center in Farmington.

Though the announcement made by the governor’s office about the plan was full of jolly enthusiasm for helping the UConn Health Center “thrive,” political blogger and Hartford Courant columnist Kevin Rennie disclosed that the university first strongly opposed it in a letter to the governor.

Maric, UConn trustees Chairman Daniel Toscano, health center board Chairman Sanford Cloud, and medical school Dean Bruce T. Liang wrote: “We fear this will cause significant damage to UConn Health, including its schools, its reputation, and most importantly, retention and recruitment of the best and brightest faculty, staff, and students.”

So the idea of getting serious about the UConn Health Center’s chronic insolvency is the governor’s alone, and while people on UConn’s payroll may resent him for that, ordinary taxpayers may approve.

For the university long has been full of excess, especially with its highest paid staffers, as a report by the state auditors reiterated in August. The auditors said UConn had overpaid two professors on sabbatical by a total of more than $450,000. The UConn Health Center still hasn’t overcome the damage to its reputation done in 2018 when it was found to have paid a professor for five months after he had stopped showing up for work, having been murdered at home, apparently by his wife.

Indeed, state legislators long have attributed the health center’s insolvency to employee compensation that is far greater than compensation paid to comparable staff at other hospitals.

Likely to compound the health center’s financial challenges is the governor’s warning to all the state’s institutions of higher education that the many millions of dollars they have been receiving in federal “emergency” money appropriated during the recent virus epidemic will be ending next year. The good old days of the epidemic — good financially, anyway — are over, state budget surpluses are diminishing, and the economy is weakening amid severe inflation.

So the wailing from higher education has begun — led by administrators who are paid salaries of $200,000, $300,000, and more.

Even if the UConn Health Center gets employee compensation under control, achieving solvency may be difficult, as it is for most hospitals that serve many patients on Medicare and Medicaid, government insurance systems that typically pay less for their patients than what other patients are charged. Additionally, there is always the danger of losing well-regarded staff members to institutions that are even less concerned about efficiency than UConn is.

But the tell is in the contradiction between the private position of the UConn administrators, as expressed in their letter to the governor, and their public position, as expressed in the governor’s upbeat press release. Hardly anyone in state government ever wants to economize, but UConn especially doesn’t, as its record suggests.

The governor does want to economize, or at least would like to, or he wouldn’t be pressing the health center issue.

How much does the governor want to economize with the health center and the rest of higher education? This involves many unionized government employees, a group that constitutes the biggest part of the army of the governor’s political party so and can bring enormous pressure on state legislators, whose votes might be needed to accomplish serious reforms with UConn.

The governor probably won’t get far with UConn, which is considered the fourth branch of government. He hasn’t remade the Board of Trustees, which would seem to be the prerequisite of reform. If he had remade the board, its chairman wouldn’t have signed the letter to the governor objecting to the review the governor wanted made of the health center’s operations.

Besides, governors come and go while tenure in public higher education and state government generally are virtually forever.

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Chris Powell has written about Connecticut government and politics for many years. (CPowell@cox.net)