Another legal challenge to prison health care privatization loomsby Dara Kam | September 11th, 2012
The union representing state workers has vowed to file another lawsuit if a legislative committee approves the privatization of all prison health care services tomorrow.
Lawyers for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees contend the move to outsource the health care for Florida’s 100,000 inmates is illegal.
The Joint Legislative Budget Commission is slated tomorrow to vote on a request from the Department of Corrections to transfer money within the agency to pay for contracts with two private companies, Wexford Health Sources and Corizon. The state now spends about $350 million a year on prison health care, including drugs. The agency plans to begin the privatization, affecting about 2,600 employees, on Jan. 1.
The GOP-dominated legislature last year gave the corrections department permission to outsource the prison health care privatization in budget “proviso” language, but the privatization has been tied up in court. AFSCME and the Florida Nurses’ Association challenged the privatization, saying it was a major policy change that needed to be approved in a stand-alone bill. A judge thwarted a similar attempt to privatize a large portion of the state’s prisons last year, and lawmakers were unable to pass a prison privatization bill during the legislative session that ended in March.
A Leon County circuit judge did not rule on the health care privatization lawsuit because the proviso language expired with the June 30 end of the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Even without the proviso language, the agency contends that existing state law gives it permission to privatize certain functions. But Tom Brooks, a lawyer for AFSCME, said that the language of the statue restricts those efforts to counties, municipalities, non-profit corporations and other similar entities. Brooks says that means the law specifically excluded for-profit corporations like Corizon and Wexford.
And Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich called the move an “overreach” because the legislative budget panel does not have the authority to approve what she called a major policy change, especially after the prison privatization was shot down earlier this year.
“To try and ram it through the Legislative Budget Commission when the leadership certainly knows the bill was defeated…flies in the face of what the legislature did,” Rich, D-Weston, said in a telephone conference call with reporters this morning.
The corrections department has experimented with privatizing prison health care for more than a decade, but each time the contracts were ended by either the vendors or the state.
In 2000, Wexford was awarded five-year contract with the state to provide health services to South Florida prisons. The company successfully sued the state to get a rate increase, and the state did not renew the contract when it expired.
AFSCME spokesman Doug Martin raised questions about whether the state would save money on the contracts even now, pointing to language included in the proposal to be voted on tomorrow.
“While the statewide savings will remain the same, the savings per contract cannot be validated at this time,” the proposal reads.