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Critics assail 'back door' prison health outsourcing plan

On the eve of a key legislative vote, critics of outsourcing all inmate health care in Florida promised Tuesday to file suit if the proposal goes through as expected.

The 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Commission, controlled by Republicans, will meet Wednesday to consider a request by Gov. Rick Scott's office and the Department of Corrections to award contracts to two out-of-state vendors, Wexford Health Services of Pittsburgh and Corizon Health of Brentwood, Tenn., to provide all medical and pharmaceutical care to more than 100,000 inmates.

The agency wants to shift $58 million between budget accounts to hire the vendors by January.

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, and Tom Brooks, an attorney for the AFSCME public employee union, criticized the proposal as a misuse of the legislative budget commission and an end-run around the entire 160-member Legislature. (The Senate last session defeated a proposal to privatize all prisons in a 19-county region in South Florida).

"My feeling is that we need to not do this now. It needs to be brought back to the full legislature next session," Rich said.

The Legislature, in last year's budget (fiscal 2011-2012), included fine-print language known as proviso directing the health care outsourcing. But when a new fiscal year began July 1, the old proviso language died. Now the state is pushing ahead, claiming it has the authority under state law -- an action that surely would be the crux of a union legal challenge.    

Brooks said the state is improperly relying on a clause that allows it to contract with local governments, non-profits and "other entities" for services. "This is just a back door attempt to revive the expired proviso, and believe that legally, there needs to be a specific authorization from the Legislature, not this generalized authority from DOC."

Brooks said AFSCME will file a new lawsuit challenging the privatization if it's approved Wednesday.

The JLBC is chaired by Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, a longstanding supporter of privatization in prisons. Rich is one of four Democrats on the panel, and as a declared candidate for governor in 2014 would be seeking labor's support in a primary.

Privatization of inmate health care has a controversial and unsuccessful history in Florida. Corizon has a contract to provide mental health care to inmates in South Florida, where inmate Darren Rainey died in custody in June. Prison officials have declined to discuss Rainey's death, citing an ongoing investigation.

-- Steve Bousquet