Lawmakers Could Ok Prison Health Privatization

By: Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
By: Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida

Tallahassee, FL -- June 13, 2012 --

With a judge still deciding whether the plan is constitutional, a legislative budget panel this month is expected to consider moving forward with the privatization of prison health services.

The Department of Corrections has requested that the Legislative Budget Commission, a joint panel of House and Senate members, take up the privatization issue June 26 and allow signing contracts with firms that would manage inmate health care.

The request comes as Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll gets ready to rule on a challenge to a legislative move last year that directed the department to go through the contracting process. The Florida Nurses Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees argue lawmakers violated the state constitution by putting the privatization plan in budget fine print --- known as "proviso" language --- instead of approving it in a more-typical bill.

Carroll heard arguments in the case May 29 but has not issued a ruling. The budget proviso calls for the department to get approval from the Legislative Budget Commission before finalizing contracts.

It was not immediately clear Wednesday what would happen if Carroll rules that the Legislature's use of proviso language was unconstitutional. But one likely factor in taking the issue to the Legislative Budget Commission this month is that the proviso language expires with the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

"The qualified bids received substantially meet or exceed the requirements in proviso,'' the agency said in a document submitted to the Legislature. "The department is requesting Legislative Budget Commission approval of the selected health-care awards so the agency can move forward executing the health-care contracts."

Carroll even raised questions during the May 29 hearing about what happens if the legal issues remain unresolved at the end of the current fiscal year. Regardless of when he rules, Carroll said he expects the losing party to appeal.

But Jonathan Glogau, an attorney for the state, said Carroll needed to decide whether the contracting process should go forward.

"With all due respect your honor, you're not off the hook,'' Glogau said during the hearing.

M. Stephen Turner, an attorney for the nurses association, said Wednesday that the state's use of proviso language might leave little choice but to take the issue to the Legislative Budget Commission before July 1. But he described the way lawmakers have tried to make the privatization changes as a "mess."

"What they're doing doesn't make any sense if you're a logical person,'' Turner said.

If Carroll sides with the nurses association and the employees' union, an appeal by the state could lead to a stay of his ruling. That could give the Legislative Budget Commission a legal argument for allowing the department to sign the contracts.

Attorneys for the state and potential contractors --- Corizon, Inc., and Wexford Health Sources --- also have argued that the department could privatize health services without the proviso language. The opponents, meanwhile, contend that lawmakers would need to make changes to state law before privatization could take place.

The department in April recommended that Corizon receive a contract for prisons in North and Central Florida and that Wexford receive a contract in South Florida. The proviso language required cost savings of at least 7 percent compared to 2009-10 inmate-health expenses --- a requirement that the department says the contracts would meet.

But privatization is a highly controversial issue, in part, because employees fear they will lose jobs or see pay or benefit cuts if the state contracts out the services. Another Leon County circuit judge, Jackie Fulford, last year blocked a legislative plan to privatize management of prisons throughout the southern half of the state, ruling that lawmakers improperly used proviso language to make the change.

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