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Prisons will move forward with health outsourcing

The Florida Department of Corrections said Tuesday it will move ahead with plans to privatize all health care for the nation's third-largest prison system, even after a stalemate in court and the expiration of legislative budget language that authorized the sweeping change.

Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker issued a late-afternoon statement calling the decision "best for the Department and taxpayers." "This step will allow us to provide the same services we currently havem which meet state and federal standards, while saving money for the taxpayers."

The action could trigger a new round of litigation by a labor union that represents nurses who work in the system.

The Legislature last year ordered the agency to privatize all health care as a money-saving move, by inserting budget language known as proviso and requiring a savings of at least 7 percent over 2010 costs. In April, Tucker announced a decision to tentatively award contracts to Corizon Health in most of the state and Wexford Health Sources in South Florida. Two unions filed a lawsuit. A state judge in Tallahassee did not rule in the case before the fiscal year ended on June 30, and the proposal also required approval by the Legislative Budget Commission, which never took action on it.

Florida has more than 100,000 inmates in its prisons. This would be the most extensive single privatization venture ever undertaken by a state prison system in the U.S. Attorneys for the state contend that privatization can be done by the agency without a legislative mandate.

"Change isn't easy, and we know sometimes it can be unsettling," Tucker said. "However, the hard work of our employees is greatly appreciated and recognized."

--Steve Bousquet