TALLAHASSEE — The nation's largest outsourcing of prison medical care is finally under way in Florida with the state turning to a private company with a history of problems in other states.
Corizon Inc. of Brentwood, Tenn., plans to start work Aug. 1 after Florida won a two-year legal fight with a public employee union that accused the Legislature of illegally seeking to privatize health care in most prisons by steering the decision to a 14-member Legislative Budget Commission.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and a second union representing physicians and dentists won the first round in circuit court. The state prevailed in the 1st District Court of Appeal, where a three-judge panel upheld the right of the commission to approve a budget transfer for the project and ruled that the prison system has "broad authority" under law to contract for services.
The decision rescued Corizon's $230 million contract and gives Gov. Rick Scott another opportunity to show how the state workforce continues to shrink on his watch.
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Corrections Secretary Mike Crews has sent letters to 1,756 employees, notifying them that Corizon will take over all health care in prisons in north and central Florida.
"The position you currently occupy with the Department will no longer be available," Crews wrote.
He added that all displaced workers have a right to job interviews with Corizon and said: "It is anticipated that Corizon will ultimately employ a majority of health services employees."
Some will earn less money than before and they will no longer accrue pension benefits with the Florida Retirement System. A spokesman for Corizon, Brian Fulton, declined to discuss the compensation package being offered to Florida workers.
In addition, full-time employees who leave the state payroll are entitled to cash payouts for unused sick leave and vacation time, which the Department of Corrections estimates will cost $6.45 million.
As a candidate for governor in 2010, Scott, a former CEO of the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain, promised to reduce spending on prisons through competitive bidding on health services.
"If we can provide a great service at a better price, then we ought to be doing that," Scott said.
Under terms of its contract, Corizon must offer comprehensive care to Florida's inmate population for 7 percent less than it cost the state in 2010. Health care costs have increased steadily since then.
Prison officials hope cost savings will reduce a chronic budget deficit in the nation's third-largest prison system, with about 100,000 inmates.
Corizon says it provides care to 317,000 inmates in 29 states, making it the nation's dominant provider of inmate care. The firm's Florida contract, for prisons north of Palm Beach County, will be its largest.
From Maine to Idaho, Corizon has faced criticism and fines for its treatment of inmates and business practices:
In Louisville, Ky., six Corizon workers resigned and a series of lawsuits followed the deaths of two inmates in the county jail last year. One inmate suffered a drug overdose and the other had diabetes and heart disease and county officials said it took too long for them to get medical attention.
In Idaho, a court-appointed expert said Corizon's care for inmates at the state prison near Boise was inhumane. The company countered that a national accrediting agency said conditions were satisfactory.
Corizon agreed last year to pay a $1.85 million fine to Philadelphia after an investigation revealed the use of a phony subcontractor to meet city rules for minority-owned vendors.
In Florida, the company provides health care in jails in Alachua, Collier, Polk, St. Lucie and Volusia counties.
A separate company, Wexford Health Sources, has a five-year contract starting at $48 million a year to provide inmate health care in nine prisons in South Florida.