THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Aug. 8, 2012
Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
A Leon County circuit judge Wednesday waded back into a dispute about whether the Florida Department of Corrections can proceed with a plan to privatize inmate health services, with opponents arguing the agency should be forced to go through a new bidding process.
Lawmakers last year used budget fine print, known as "proviso" language, to direct the Department of Corrections to go through a contracting process for prison health services. But the Florida Nurses Association and a state-workers union filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the move, saying it needed to be approved in state law and not through proviso language.
Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll appeared to end the case last month without ruling on the constitutional issue, because the proviso language expired with the June 30 end of the 2011-12 fiscal year. After the expiration, however, the Department of Corrections announced it would move forward with privatization and award contracts to two companies based on other authority it has in state law.
The department's move spurred attorneys for the nurses association and the union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to seek to bring the case back before Carroll. Privatization is highly controversial, as state workers fear they will lose their jobs or see pay and benefits shrink if private companies start providing services.
"I'm trying to get this right, guys,'' Carroll said near the end of Wednesday's hearing, which followed months of legal wrangling about the issue.
David Miller, an attorney for the nurses association, said the department should not be able to rely on the bidding process outlined in the expired proviso language and should have to start anew if it wants to try to privatize health services.
"If we want to challenge that (new process), we'll have an opportunity to do that,'' Miller said.
But Jonathan Glogau, an attorney for the state, said the department has the legal power to privatize the services, regardless of the proviso language dying.
"The department is not operating under the proviso,'' Glogau said. "They're operating under their statutory authority."
Carroll did not indicate how he would resolve the dispute and asked the attorneys to file further written documents.
"We're still kind of looking in the rear-view mirror about how we got where we are right now,'' he said.
The department said last month it planned to award contracts to Corizon, Inc., to provide health services at prisons in north and central Florida, and to Wexford Health Sources to provide services in the southern part of the state.
Wexford, which sought contracts in other parts of the state, later filed documents aimed at challenging bid-related decisions made by the department. But the department issued an order Tuesday dismissing the protest.