Two Sides in Waterbury Hospital Bill Veto Entrench Deeper

Depending on who you believe, the process that led to Gov. Malloy vetoing a bill affecting Waterbury Hospital was either a complete betrayal and breaking of an agreement that will have dire consequences for future negotiations or a case of a bill with many moving parts that failed to acceptably come together in the last days of the legislative session.

The veto of the bill that would have paved the way for a for-profit company to take over Waterbury Hospital is a classic case of a legislative backroom deal falling apart when other forces intervened. The Shad saw that happen many times in my years on staff in the General Assembly. I wasn’t in the room for this one so it’s hard to say definitively whose version is more accurate.

State Rep. Sean Williams, a popular Watertown Republican, says all sides—Republicans, Democrats and the Malloy administration—had agreed upon a deal for legislation that would allow the healthcare company Vanguard to take over the hospital. Efforts to save the financially struggling hospital have been going on for years. Williams says this time, a solution was in place. Both the Democratically controlled Senate and House passed the bill with strong majorities. Then the governor vetoed it. Williams was apoplectic. “At no time did the administration tell us the bill we all agreed upon would be vetoed,” Williams said. “If they had concerns, we would have addressed them.”

Williams says the governor’s people can no longer be trusted to negotiate with the legislature. “I’ve seen deals broken before and I never trusted the person who broke the deal again; I’ve never trusted the person who went behind my back and broke the deal. This [veto] has neutered their ability to negotiate in good faith.” Williams has said this was the biggest betrayal he has seen in his ten years in Hartford.

Mark Ojakian, Governor Malloy’s chief of staff, was in the room for the negotiations and tells a different story. “It was the last days of the session and there were many moving parts [in the bill]. I signaled my willingness to be helpful with the bill. Was there an agreement? Was there a handshake? No. I did not sign off on the bill.”

Ojakian clearly takes Williams’ charges personally. He notes that the effort to fix the Waterbury Hospital situation has a long history and Williams was late to the game. “I’ve never talked to Rep. Williams about this in the last two years [prior to the last days of the session]. He was not part of any of the discussions,” Ojakian said. When I spoke to Ojakian last week, he was still upset. “This strikes at my basic integrity. I’m involved with policy, not politics as Rep. Williams is now.” He described Williams’ charges as “disingenuous” and even “foolish.”

So what happened? Why did the governor end up vetoing the bill? First, it’s important to point out that nothing is a “done deal” when it comes to legislation until the ink from the governor’s pen actually spells out his name on the bill. Many times, other forces intercede to change things. That no doubt happened here.

It’s no secret that labor unions hated the bill. With for-profit companies come for-profit approaches to labor relationships. It’s also no secret that Malloy is up for reelection next year and he needs labor’s support. He won by a razor-thin margin in 2010 with labor support. He can’t afford to alienate them. Ojakian tells me he was never approached by any representative of labor to kill the bill. That may be true but there is no doubt in my mind, the unions played a significant if not determining role in the veto. That’s to be expected. Labor has a job to do and does it well.

Of the unions’ influence, Williams says, “I was told it was a labor issue. [The governor’s] veto message was completely different.” He added, “The governor’s approval rating is in the tank, he won by a razor-thin margin last time, he got booed at the Rock Cats [baseball] game and labor is his biggest ally. I’ll let anyone who observes politics draw their own conclusions.”

In his veto message, Malloy wrote, “As this bill carves out an exception to existing law for the benefit of specific for-profit entities, further consideration is warranted to determine whether such exceptions are appropriate and, if so, whether existing law should be amended on a broader basis. Further consideration is also warranted to determine whether current law provides adequate safeguards to guard against any perceived or actual threat to the independence of medical decisions made by providers employed by for-profit entities.” Malloy has since said that the veto was a result of concern over the overall direction the hospital industry in Connecticut was taking in general as well as Vanguard’s business situation in particular.