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November 11, 2013 OTHER VOICES

Hospitals at crossroads; Can Cummings deliver?

Christopher Healy

The future of Connecticut's hospital system may soon be in the hands of someone who has the urgency of an emergency room nurse — fearless, quick to assess the situation with the confidence to take charge amid chaos.

In a few months, Bruce Cummings, the CEO of Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London, will be the new chairman of the Connecticut Hospital Association, and his ascension might be just what the health care community ordered. Cummings is no nonsense and he is not afraid to stand up for his people or the industry. Cummings already has proven he can take it and dish it back.

Other hospitals, including those in urban areas — Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven — who face huge challenges, should be grateful that Cummings is aboard. Cummings has shown his mettle by standing his ground against the Malloy Administration recently, when Lawrence & Memorial and its unions were engaged in a dispute over recent layoffs.

L&M terminated 33 personnel, due in part, to an $18 million cut in subsidy from the state. That was part of a larger $550 million statewide cut to all hospitals this past budget year. The hospital also privatized other functions — an apostasy for Gov. Malloy who sent Cummings a letter expressing his concern for the union members affected. Cummings responded almost immediately and gave Gov. Malloy little doubt he wasn't impressed with executive branch meddling.

After meeting with AFT unions at Foxwoods, Malloy sent a letter objecting to L&M's recent management actions.

Cummings didn't wait for the ink to dry, telling the governor, “We're well aware of the cuts impacting us this year and they are real. L&M and other hospitals around the state are faced with the same challenges, and the bulk of those are coming from Hartford.”

Around the state, Cummings was becoming a hero to many in health care management. These executives can be easily maligned. Gov. Malloy has challenged these CEOs as being overpaid — a sop to the unions he is eager to please, especially with an election on the horizon.

With few exceptions, most of the CEO community does little to make their case, often hoping for the best after rudimentary lobbying and letter writing.

Despite being the largest employers in their host communities and vital to the regions they serve, Connecticut hospitals are scrambling for survival — responding to major state budget cuts by the Malloy Administration, pressure from unions and the unknown effect of Obamacare.

The Administration claims the cuts are not an accurate reflection and are merely reductions in anticipated growth. What is at work here is simply this — the Malloy Administration placed a tax on hospitals to leverage more federal money that was sent to the hospitals. Now, the state is simply taxing the hospitals with no refund.

Faced with this new reality, 25 of the 30 acute care hospitals sent a letter in March to the entire legislature, outlining how budget cuts would affect each institution. Democrats met with hospital officials. They nodded, said they would fight to the last man and then voted to cut the hospital's bottom line by a total of $550 million while raising taxes a record $1.6 billion.

Meanwhile, Malloy has spent hundreds of millions to prop up the UConn Medical center and build a research facility to the tune of $291 million. UConn is a financial sinkhole — consuming millions in tax dollars each year in annual budget shortfalls. It would have closed long ago without state subsidy under several administrations.

Since the budget's adoption with the reductions implemented, St. Vincent's Hospital in Bridgeport laid off 100 workers; L&M, 33, and Danbury and New Milford Hospitals, 116.

Hospital CEOs and the Connecticut Hospital Association don't appreciate the potential they really have to affect public policy. They have employees, vendors, donors, benefactors and patients whose lives have been saved or improved. These hospitals can also count on local town officials who understand how central a strong hospital is for their communities. These hospitals spend millions on new facilities, and high-end promotional campaigns to draw new patients to them.

Properly organized and motivated, the hospitals can get themselves dealt a better hand in the coming years and there's nothing like a statewide election to provide leverage in that quest.

On the other side of this debate, though, is accountability. There are many hospitals that are not well run, that are too top-heavy in administration or not making the necessary changes to be competitive. The state needs to allow these hospitals to merge, be bought and converted to for-profit models like Sharon Hospital, or be closed.

Cummings could be the man of the hour to change the dynamic where hospitals don't have to beg or apologize for being the center of both health care and economic opportunity in their communities.

The time for someone to make that case is long over-due.

Christopher Healy is the former chairman of the Connecticut Republican party and founder of Healy Strategy in Wethersfield. He will be writing an occasional column for the Hartford Business Journal.

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