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Another legal challenge to prison health care privatization looms

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012 by Dara Kam

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.
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Budget chiefs revive prison health care watchdog agency

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The House last night agreed to the Senate’s plan to revive the Florida Correctional Medical Authority, a watchdog agency responsible for overseeing health care to Florida’s prisoners.

Lawmakers shuttered the agency last year despite concerns that the closing may put the state in violation of a federal court order. Gov. Rick Scott expressed concern that its elimination could “could cause public health and safety risks” in a veto message killing a bill pushed by the House that would have eliminated the CMA, but lawmakers zeroed out its $700,000 budget, forcing the agency to close its doors last summer.

Considered a national model, the CMA was created more than 25 years ago as part of a class action lawsuit. The shut-down came amid a statewide effort to privatize health care for the state’s 100,000 inmates. Scott is now facing two lawsuits over the outsourcing effort.

The CMA until last year consisted of a nine-member panel housed under the Department of Health. Under the new plan, the oversight board will be comprised of seven governor-appointed members, have a budget of about $580,000 budget and six workers who will be part of Scott’s administration but will continue to operate independently.

Senate budget chief JD Alexander cited the elimination of the CMA as an example of a problem with the conference process in which issues get “bumped” to the budget chairmen, who are responsible for ironing out differences on sometimes arcane items in the state’s $70-plus billion spending plan. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said this year he regretted away to do away with it.

Are private prisons cheaper?

Monday, February 13th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The state’s private prisons aren’t costing the state less than their state-run counterparts, according to Department of Corrections data released this morning by Sen. Paula Dockery, one of the leaders of a gang of GOP senators opposed to a prison privatization plan set for floor action this afternoon.

Dockery’s data reveal that the four of the private prisons cost less than similar public institutions, but one of those prisons – Gadsden Correctional Institution, which houses female prisoners – achieved its cheaper rate in part because it was compared to Lowell Correctional Institution which also includes a more expensive reception center and Death Row inmates. Read the data here and here.

The private prisons are supposed to save taxpayers a minimum of 7 percent of what it costs to run equivalent state-run facilities.

Among the more expensive private prisons is Palm Beach County’s South Bay, operated by Boca Raton-based GEO Group, with a $48.11 per diem rate for its 1,856 prisoners. That compares to a daily rate of $37.91 per inmate at nearby Okeechobee Correctional Institution which houses 1,619 prisoners. Both have minimum, medium and close custody adult male prisoners.

Overall, the private prisons average $46.73 per prisoner per day, compared to $42.36 per day for public prisons, Dockery found. Those on both sides of the issue say it is difficult to compare the costs for the prisons because of differences in the types of inmates they house. That’s one reason Senate budget chief JD Alexander wants to privatize an entire Department of Corrections region in the southern portion of the state. He says that will make it easier to compare costs with other state-run regions after the privatization is complete.

Senators will take up amendments this afternoon on a proposal (SB 2038) that would privatize all DOC operations – including more than two dozen prisons and work camps – in an 18-county region in the southern portion of the state. Backers of the plan, including Gov. Rick Scott, say it will save taxpayers money. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, estimates the savings at between $14.5 million to $44 million annually.

Dockery and Sen. Mike Fasano, whom Senate President Mike Haridopolos stripped of a budget committee chairmanship because of Fasano’s public opposition to the proposal, insist taxpayers will ultimately lose in the deal.

“In an effort to privatize our state’s prisons, Senate leaders are acting like politicians at their worst – twisting arms in backrooms and giving contracts to special interest donors,” Dockery, R-Lakeland, said in a statement. “They need to start acting like any business in the private sector would and stop using imaginary numbers.”

Meanwhile, the statewide chapter of the NAACP came out against the plan – also opposed by labor unions – this morning. Dale Landry, chairman of the organization’s criminal and civil justice committee, accused Scott and GOP lawmakers of being influenced by the private prison companies’ campaign donations

GEO and Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, have contributed at least $2 million to candidates or political parties since Scott’s election in 2010. GEO contributed at least $336,000 to the Republican Party of Florida in the past year. The two vendors would be the primary bidders on the plan, which would give contracts to at least two companies to participate.

“One only has to look at contributions by the two primary candidates for operating the private prisons in Florida, CCA and the GEO Group, and we can understand the power of these corporate masters over the Republican leadership,” Landry said. “As a result, they are calling for a redemption of their investments.”

Partisan scuffle over privatization and tax breaks yields hot air and jerked knees

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich got the last word in a partisan flame war with Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner over firing prison workers vs. closing a corporate tax loophole.

Rich launched the skirmish when she fired off a statement accusing Senate President Mike Haridopolos of ignoring her proposal that would net $500 million a year by putting an end to the “water’s edge” tax break multi-state corporations receive but companies based only in Florida do not.

“If the Senate President is serious about reportedly fighting ‘like hell to try to find some savings,’ he needs to redirect the Senate’s aim to where the confirmed savings can be found,” Rich, D-Weston, said.

Senate budget chief JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, estimates the state could save at least $16.5 million a year with a prison privatization measure that would outsource Department of Corrections operations in an 18-county region in southern Florida. The embattled proposal is now on hold in the Senate and prompted Haridopolos to eject Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, as chairman of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee for his public vilification of the plan.

Gardiner accused Rich of employing a “knee-jerk, Democratic reaction” of raising taxes on already struggling Florida families and businesses. The Orlando Republican said the savings from the outsourcing would be better spent on education or health care in a time when lawmakers are fighting to close a $1.4 billion budget hole.

“It is irresponsible to trivialize a significant, multimillion-dollar savings,” Gardiner shot back in a statement. “It is my hope that we will soon see more solution-oriented language from the senator and less hot air.”

Rich didn’t leave it at that. She blamed her GOP counterpart of more “of the strong-armed tactics the Republican leadership is currently deploying to ram through” the privatization proposal.

“When a member of the Republican leadership deliberately distorts my words advocating for corporations to finally pull their own weight as a “knee jerk reaction” of “raising taxes” on Floridians, his so-called ‘response’ is not only wrong, but patently false. He’s correct, we ‘don’t need bills that raise taxes,’” Rich responded.

Rich’s proposal (SB 1590), which has not yet been heard in committee, levels the playing field for in and out-of-state businesses, she argued.

“Given the events Floridians have watched unfold this week – the inability to muster the votes to layoff thousands of corrections officers from their jobs, the punishment of a Republican Senator rightly critical of the prison privatization scheme, and now the accusation that Democrats want to raise taxes because the GOP so fears my legislation that could spare Floridians from the additional loss of critical services already cut to the bone – Senator Gardiner would do well to admit the real agenda behind their ‘teachers versus corrections officers’ privatization drive,” Rich said.

Nurses follow suit over prison privatization suit

Thursday, January 26th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Florida Nurses Association has filed a lawsuit against the state corrections department over a prison health care privatization effort ordered by lawmakers in the budget last year.

The nurses are using the same argument that the Florida Police Benevolent Association successfully used to kill a prison privatization plan also included in the budget. A Tallahassee judge ruled that the way lawmakers went about the outsourcing was unconstitutional and needed instead to be the subject of a stand-alone bill.

The Department of Corrections is now taking bids to privatize all health services to the state’s 100,000 inmates. The outsourcing would put more than 1,000 nurses and other health care professionals now working for DOC out of a job, according to FNA director of labor relations Jeanie Demshar.

“We believe that any effort to turn thousands of state employee jobs over to private companies needs to be vetted by the public, with input from those workers,’’ Demshar said in a statement.

The suit was filed on Tuesday in the Leon County Circuit Court, where Judge Jackie Fulford scrapped the privatization of all corrections operations – affecting more than two dozen facilities and nearly 4,000 workers – in the 18-county southern portion of the state from Polk County to the Florida Keys.

Lawmakers are now reviving the prison privatization plan, slated for a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Read the lawsuit here.

Prison workers decry privatization

Monday, January 23rd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Emotional pleas and threats of questionable savings and a danger to public safety failed to move an elite group of senators who gave preliminary approval to a sweeping prison privatization plan struck down by a judge last year.

Dozens of prison workers from throughout the state packed the Senate Rules Committee and testified for more than two hours on a fast-tracked proposal (SB 2038), pleading with the panel to slow down and warning that the savings for the state from outsourcing are overstated.

The privatization effort coincides with a Department of Corrections decision to shut down seven prisons and other facilities, doubling the prison workers’ worries.

Amanda Abers, 28, told the committee she moved from Minnesota to Florida a year ago to work at Indian River Correctional, a youth offender prison slated for closure.

“Vero Beach is not a big area. This is going to hit the economy very, very hard. You’re putting me out on the street plus their spouses, their kids, everybody,” she said.

Senate budget chief JD Alexander, who included the privatization in the budget last year and sponsor of the proposal, said the outsourcing will force the department to reexamine its spending and questioned its management after the discovery last year that the agency had 12,000 empty beds scattered throughout the system. Shutting down the prisons will save an estimated $77 million annually, Alexander said.

“Competition makes us all better. It’s uncomfortable. It’s not always fun. But I believe that it makes it better,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said.
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Judge orders Scott admin to ‘cease and desist’ prison privatization bidding

Saturday, November 5th, 2011 by Dara Kam

A Tallahassee judge has ordered Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration to “cease and desist” the bidding process for a prison privatization plan she earlier ruled was unconstitional.

Tallahassee Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford late Friday night put the brakes on Department of Corrections officials’ attempt to bypass her earlier decision that the way lawmakers ordered the privatization of the 18-county region in the southern portion of the start violated the state constitution.

In her order, Fulford pointed out that corrections officials reneged on a pledge made Thursday not to move forward with the bidding before a Nov. 16 hearing. Later the same day, the department announced it was reopening the procurement and bids would be accepted after Nov. 10, Fulford wrote.

Fulford ruled on Sept. 30 that lawmakers should not have included the privatization plan in the must-pass state budget but instead should have ordered it in a stand-alone bill.

Scott opted not to appeal, but Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a last-minute appeal late Monday on behalf of state lawmakers, setting the stage for Friday’s court showdown.

In granting the emergency stay to the Florida Police Benevolent Association, Fulford wrote that “defendants are not likely to succeed on the merits on appeal.”

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Scott won’t appeal prison privatization ruling

Monday, October 31st, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott won’t appeal a circuit court judge’s ruling that a sweeping prison privatization plan included by state lawmakers in the budget is unconstitutional. Scott has until today to appeal the decision.

Read The Palm Beach Post story about why lawmakers would rather not appeal Tallahassee Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford’s ruling that the way lawmakers went about the privatization plan, later signed into law by the first-term governor, was unconstitutional.

Scott told the Florida News Network early this afternoon he won’t appeal and that the plan will now go back to lawmakers, who are expected to pass it during their regular session that begins in January, then defended the proposal that would have required a single vendor to take over an 18-county region in South Florida, including 29 prisons and other corrections operations, for 7 percent less than what the Department of Corrections is now spending.

“We’re not going to file an appeal. It goes back to the legislature. But let’s all remember what we’re doing here,” Scott said at the airport before flying to Titusville for a Kennedy Space Center jobs announcement.

“You as a consumer, you expect your government to be efficient, right? You don’t want your government to waste money. So all that’s happening is your state legisalture with my support is saying look let’s figure out how we can save money. Let’s do the best job we can but let’s also make sure we’re not wasting taxpayer dollars. That’s what that program was supposed to do. So I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to do that,” Scott said. “We have a billion to $2 billion deficit this year….We’ve got to look at all the opportunities we can to do a gret job for the taxpayers of the state of Florida but not waste their money.”

The Florida Police Benevolent Association, which filed the lawsuit, applauded Scott’s decision, saying it would save 3,600 correctional workers’ jobs.

“The Florida PBA is pleased that Governor Scott and legislative leaders decided not to move forward with appealing the Court’s ruling that the legislature’s attempt to privatize public facilities through the budget was unconstitutional,” PBA executive director Matt Puckett said in a statement. “Now we need to educate the public and the legislature on the significant public safety issues and lack of significant savings associated with the privatization issue.”

Judge orders ousted DOC secretary Buss to testify in prisons lawsuit

Thursday, September 15th, 2011 by Dara Kam

A judge ordered former Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss to testify in a lawsuit about the state’s privatization of prisons in the southern part of Florida.

Tallahassee Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford denied the state’s request to keep Buss, fired by Gov. Rick Scott late last month, from having to give a deposition in the lawsuit filed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

Buss left the agency amid the privatization of more than one-third of the state’s prisons, the largest privatization effort in the country.

His abrupt resignation came after Scott’s office twice rebuked the former Indiana prisons chief over state contracts and after the termination of a contract with Elizabeth “Betty” Gondles, one of Buss’s hand-picked aides, for a possible conflict of interest with the privatization of the department’s health services.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, representing Scott’s administration in the lawsuit, argued that, because he is no longer secretary, Buss should not have to give a deposition.

But Fulford sided with the PBA, saying that Buss is “reasonably likely to have unique discoverable knowledge of potentially relevant subject matter” and that the PBA had tried unsuccessfully to get the information elsewhere.

The PBA is challenging the privatization, alleging that it is unconstitutional because it was included in proviso language in the state budget instead of a stand-alone bill creating state policy.

A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 29.

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