Just in the past week, several policies under the Scott administration and the Legislature exploded into the news cycle with several reports of the severe impacts of steep budget cuts in two key agencies -- budget reductions that impair the health and safety of numerous Floridians.
Medical care denied kids
Under fierce criticism in the media and state Senate, the Florida Department of Health quickly backtracked on a cold-hearted policy to shed enrollment in a taxpayer-funded health care program that served children suffering from conditions that cannot be neglected -- "the sickest of the sick," a former agency employee stated. The agency announced just days ago that enrollment in a program that serves youngsters with chronic and serious medical conditions will reopen in January.
The agency had purged around 9,000 children from the Children's Medical Services program between May and September, which a Miami Herald report last week disclosed. The outrage came fast and furious, fully warranted concerning an agency with a priority of cutting costs set in state law instead of improving the health of children with severely detached retinas and other special medical needs.
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The elimination of those thousands of children came under a 2012 law designed to restructure CMS into a state-operated managed care system with a capped budget that insurers must share -- thus implementing a rationing-of-care program. The previous fee-for-service plan was abandoned under a 2011 law that slashed spending, forcing CMS administrators to design a managed-care program that frustrated parents with a bureaucratic maze and application process that ultimately denied care to many needy children.
An administrative law judge ruled in September that the agency's screening tool could not continue without adoption through a formal rule-setting process.
Upon becoming aware of the Herald reports, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, quickly demanded an explanation from the state agency. Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott denied any children were harmed by the changes at CMS and there were no interruptions in services, though there were 9,000 children tossed out of the system.
The Legislature should review its shortsighted law and institute changes that ensure the medical outcomes of the "sickest of the sick" children. This should be a moral decision, not a fiscal one.
Prison system reeling
Another report last week cited the considerable failings of the Florida Department of Corrections, caused by ongoing budget cuts demanded by the Legislature. An independent audit found state prisons flooded with drugs and tobacco with deficient security systems and an inexperienced and overburdened staff. The audit, oddly enough ordered by the penny-pinching Legislature, blamed chronic staff shortages and budget cuts responsible for the decline in core services.
The audit, which included interviews with inmates and 284 managers, guards and other system employees, details staff turnover rates, contraband trends and security flaws. The agency turnover rate soared by 50 percent in the past six years, and now half of the corrections officers hold less than three years' experience. Salaries are substandard compared with other state corrections systems and even Florida's county jails.
Previously, a Miami Herald series of reports exposed the Department of Corrections' deep flaws, from corruption among guards, rising claims of inmate abuse and unexplained prisoner deaths. That prompted the Legislature to order the independent audit, which recommends a tobacco ban and revisions in the system's use-of-force policy among dozens of other policy reforms.
The governor could not deny the crisis in the prison system, and his proposed 2016-2017 budget includes 472 additional corrections officers as well as $36 million for prison repairs and renovations.
Lawmakers and Scott should also look at implementing inmate programs on rehabilitation and reentry into society upon their release. Florida's recidivism rates remain stagnant, and new programs are essential to drive that down and spare the corrections systems the high cost of incarcerating returning inmates.