MidState at 20: The long road to building a new hospital

MidState at 20: The long road to building a new hospital

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MERIDEN — The long often controversial campaign that ended with the MidState Medical Center celebratory ribbon cutting in 1998 began a decade earlier after a merger.

The city-owned World War II Veterans Memorial Hospital on Paddock Avenue reported financial woes that threatened its future in 1990. Administrators from the Meriden-Wallingford Hospital on Cook Avenue offered to buy the 36-year-old hospital and consolidate resources with its west campus.

But the biggest challenge was selling the idea to the public.

Local attorneys Bruce Fontanella and the late Thomas Cadden lobbied for the merger and the new entity was called Veterans Memorial Medical Center. Marketing materials promised both sites would remain open.

In June 1990, city voters approved the changes to the hospital ownership 5,585 to 4,528. 

“It’s a shame it had to go through,”  Maxwell Lee, president of the United Veterans Council of Meriden Inc., said at the time. 

Before the ink could dry on the agreement, hospital officials began talking about closing both campuses and building a new hospital in the city’s southeastern corner. 

Both east and west campuses were deemed too old, too inefficient, and too small to fulfill the merger’s goal of providing cost-effective health care for the residents of Meriden and surrounding communities, said the late Theodore Horwitz, then president of Meriden-Wallingford Hospital.  Hospital administrators said both facilities could not survive in their current conditions.

“We believe by having a single campus, we’ll be able to have a facility that will provide much more family-oriented patient care,” said Horwitz. 

Hospital administrators never promised that the two sites would remain open indefinitely, Horwitz said. 

The news hit many hospital supporters in the community hard.

In February 1993, 700 people filled the Platt High School auditorium to tell members of the state Commission on Hospitals and Health Care they felt duped by their local hospital. 

“The longest roadshow in the country,” was how one speaker described the effort to close the campuses and rebuild.  

The new hospital would be a 340,000- to 380,000- square-foot facility with 184 acute care beds and a focus on outpatient care, Horwitz said. It would be complete after 1997 and paid for through savings achieved from the merger.

Also, it would not be in downtown Meriden.

Finding a new home

City officials and those on the merger committee and hospital boards didn’t hold back their criticism. 

“I think everybody — Ted Horwitz, everybody — recognizes that credibility is going to be an issue here,” Fontanella said at the time. “A lot of us said a lot of things before the merger.”

City leaders told hospital officials the hospital should remain at one of the two campuses, preferably on Cook Avenue, where the hospital had spent nearly $5 million on improvements and was in the midst of the city’s downtown revitalization. 

 City Planner Dominick Caruso, who helped draft the city’s $23 million revitalization plan, feared what a vacant hospital would do to the effort.

“I don’t understand what’s wrong with what they’ve got,” Caruso said at the time. “They should stay right where they are and for once recognize that they have a community responsibility and a community obligation. The place for them is downtown right where they are.” 

Hospital administrators argued the age and size of the Cook Avenue facility made it impossible to renovate to suit a changing medical environment. 

“The new hospital will appear friendly and reassuring,” Horwitz said. “The old stereotypes for antiseptic high-tech hospitals will be replaced with patient convenience and a non-traditional appearance, more like that of a hotel than a hospital.”

The board selected a site near Murdock Avenue in the southeast corner of the city, a short distance from exit 15 of Interstate 91. The hospital could be positioned to be visible from the highway. The cost was an estimated  $122 million to build. But the plan was in a zone that encouraged uses that generate tax revenue, not hospitals.     

“As one of the primary architects of that zone, I can tell you that its purpose was to promote economic development,” Caruso said. “And that’s why hospitals were specifically not included.”

Caruso said he was not an expert on hospitals but “I am an expert on urban planning,” he said. “And I know that the main cause of urban decay is what’s called ‘urban flight’ businesses and institutions moving out of downtowns.”

Horwitz angered many when he said the hospital “is not in the urban renewal business,” and the city would have no hospital without a plan to rebuild. 

Lucille Janatka was the senior vice president of Meriden-Wallingford Hospital at the time.

“It was a time of great turmoil in the community around the health care needs,” she said recently. “We had two hospitals at the time, great hospitals, great people. But we knew the future would not be sustainable for our community.” 

There were concerns from House Majority Leader Thomas Luby, D-Meriden, and other lawmakers that the pushback from the community could “risk Meriden’s opportunity” entirely.  

Endispute Inc., a community conflict resolution firm, was hired to help all sides listen to each other and come to a conclusion.

But in July 1993, the state denied the hospital’s request to build in the southeast corner of the city, among other reasons, to protect Yale-New Haven’s Hospital’s market share. 

The commission told the VMMC to find a location closer to downtown where many of its patients live. Hospital officials believed the location off I-91 would allow it to recapture patients from Wallingford, Cheshire and North Haven who had been using other hospitals. 

In its denial, commission members stated the hospital did not demonstrate that these towns were underserved by existing providers. It also criticized hospital officials for not seeking the community’s support before proceeding with plans for the site.

“Everybody wants to get patients from the suburbs who are well-insured and aren’t as dependent on public programs that don’t pay as well,” said Gardner Wright Jr., former chairman of the hospital commission. 

Hospital officials had to pick a new location from several available locations: Deefield Avenue, the International Silver Co. headquarters at 500 S. Broad St. and Lewis Avenue.

An advisory panel overseen by Endispute helped identify pros and cons of all sites and recommended the state-owned Lewis Avenue site, across the street from Meriden Square shopping mall.

By this time, Luby had brokered a deal with the state to sell the 56-acre site to the hospital for $1 million.  

The original plan called for 180 beds at a cost of $122 million, but in 1994 administrators recommended a $70 million hospital with 92 beds. The hospital would be a low-rise structure of only two to three floors and much of the building would be for medical offices and outpatient treatment.

“It was meant to be a medical center and not a hospital,” Janatka said. “The belief was that medical care would move to the outpatient center. We are now more outpatient than inpatient. Midstate was chosen to encompass patient care and medical offices.”

Caruso eventually determined that the hospital did qualify as a medical center, thus bypassing the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals and rules prohibiting a hospital from being built on the land.  

Construction on the new hosptial began in 1996 and people submitted potential names to a renaming committee.

“The feeling was that we shouldn’t take one or the other name,” Janatka said. “To create a new culture and entity that everyone could rally around, we should choose a new name.”

In September 1997, VMMC introduced the new name MidState Medical Center for the $77 million hospital. 

In 1998, the City Council approved an agreement worth more than $15 million to the city over 10 years including provisions over the bonding, payments in lieu of taxes, classroom space, relocating ball fields, subsidized busing for seniors, improvements to Lewis Avenue and more. 

The hospital opened in September of that year, the first new hospital built in the state in 28 years with 236,000 square feet, 92 private inpatient rooms, a bedside computing system, cancer center, cardiology center and a family center with labor, delivery and recovery rooms. The hospital was designed to be a mostly one-level building with a tall glass corridor, the Galleria, running lengthwise through its interior.  It had separate entrances for different medical needs. 

“We’re trying to separate the very, very sick from the not-too-sick,” Horwitz said. 

Hospital staff visited hospitals across the U.S. to learn best practices in a modern hospital. They focused on customer service, streamlining admissions processes,  employee teams, and a flat hierarchy. 

Former critics began to see the benefits of the new facility.

“As this begins to take shape more and more, people are beginning to react in a positive way,” said then Mayor Joseph Marinan Jr. “The new hospital will bring added vitality to the city’s north end.” 

MidState Medical Center administrators realized quickly that 92 beds, 35 in the emergency room, would not be enough, and planned an expansion even before cutting the ribbon to the new hospital in September 1998. 

MidState would undergo several more expansions over the next two decades before opening the Orthopaedic Institute in the former Pavilian A last year. 

The former hospital building on Cook Avenue ended up in foreclosure and was eventually sold to the city. After years of neglect, the city partnered last year with a developer to rebuild the facility to provide senior housing and other services. Site cleanup began last week.

Joining a largersystem

Like the merger that created VMMC, MidState’s function today as a subsidiary of Hartford HealthCare reflects a vision dating back to the late 1980s. That’s when leaders realized the hospital would need to redesign the way it delivered care and operate differently in the future, Janatka said.

“To do that we would need access to low cost capital so we could invest in our hospital and our community,” Janatka said. “The cost of state-of-the-art technology and equipment was prohibitive for a community hospital as was more clinical supervision.” Another challenge, Janataka said was attracting more specialists who often looked to the larger ciities to establish their practices. 

“But joining a larger system would change all of that,” Janatka said. “We could share specialists and have access to capital to invest in the bigger picture.”

The board and administrative leaders agreed to join with Hartford Hospital to create Hartford HealthCare. In July 1996, the Meriden-Wallingford Community Corp. was phased out of existence. 

“Hartford HealthCare leaders supported our goal to expand services in our community and improve our aging hospital,” Janatka said. “The first step in the process with Hartford HealthCare was to merge our two Meriden hospitals into one corporate structure. Once that happened, the merger into Hartford HealthCare took place.”

The merger “also allowed the hospital to compete for managed care contracts,” Horwitz said at the time.

Mergers were not uncommon in the late 1990s. Bradley Memorial Hospital in Southington merged with New Britain to form the Hospital of Central Connecticut, which today is also affiliated with Hartford HealthCare. 

“This is a matter of survival,” Martha Fordiani, executive vice president of WWII Veterans Memorial Medical Center, said at the time. “It is not designed to take medical care out of Meriden and move it to Hartford.”



Twitter: @Cconnbiz

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