Panel OKs privatizing health care in Florida prisons

A union for state workers is racing to sue Florida after lawmakers cleared the way Wednesday to privatize health care in prisons.

A legislative panel voted 6-4 to allow the state’s Department of Corrections to try and plug its $60 million deficit by turning inmate care over to private for-profit companies.

The lawsuit could be filed as early as Thursday, said Doug Martin, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME.

About 2,600 state workers who provide prescriptions, mental health and other medical services to prisoners find their jobs and benefits in limbo over the deal, which was vetted through a 14-member budget panel, with four members absent, rather than through the more rigorous legislative committee process.

The Legislative Budget Commission hears agency requests for funding shifts between legislative sessions, and is taking on an unprecedented authority by approving the controversial change, said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston.

Florida is the third-largest prison system in the United States with more than 100,000 inmates, and is the largest state to attempt to privatize its health care system. If one member had voted differently, the proposal would have died on a tie vote.

“This is the most egregious of the over-reaches I can recall,” said Rich. “This is going to court, and I guess we’ll see what the courts have to say.”

The Department of Corrections immediately applauded the change, praising Gov. Rick Scott for helping to push it through.

With legislative approval, the state can now move forward with already-bid contracts for inmate care to Corizon Inc. in Northwest and Central Florida and Wexford Health Sources in South Florida.

Those companies won bids to care for inmates after lawmakers amended the state budget in 2011 by using last-minute changes known as proviso. The state’s use of proviso became the sticking point in a lawsuit that tied the issue up in courts until the language expired June 30.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart defended the legality of the approach and said he wouldn’t consider voting on the issue if he didn’t believe it was appropriate.

He also pushed Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker and agency health administrator Tom Reimers to specify how the private companies would achieve its promised 14.9 percent savings. On its own, Wexford promises to cut costs 34 percent.

Workers would receive higher pay but fewer benefits, Reimers replied. And medical savings would come from up-front vetting of inmate health claims and more sophisticated tracking of patient problems, he said.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who voted against the proposal, called the projected savings “highly suspicious,” pointing out the state’s troubled history with Corizon (then called Prison Health Services).

In 2006, the company bailed on a 10-year state contract when it discovered the cost of prisoner hospitalization was more than expected. Rouson also referenced multiple news reports on how private companies’ shoddy care led to lawsuits, inmate injuries and deaths.

Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, rejected the idea that the companies would bring trouble.

“The current system isn’t exactly wonderful,” he said. “And to say that simply because you privatize it’s going to be worse, I don’t think is an issue. There are going to be problems either way you go.”