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Unions' lawsuit targets prison medical privatization

State employee labor unions were back in a Tallahassee courtroom Monday, trying to block Gov. Rick Scott's administration from outsourcing all health care for  inmates in the nation's third-largest prison system. Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper posed questions to both sides for nearly two hours and promised a quick ruling.

"There's a lot on the line here," Cooper said.

The Department of Corrections has a signed contract with Corizon Healthcare to take over health care operations in central and north Florida prisons by mid-January. The state is still negotiating with Wexford Health Sources, which won the right to operate prisons in South Florida. Both vendors have said the overwhelming majority of their employees will be state workers displaced by the privatization.

But a negative court decision would be bad news for the state. Prison health care unions are challenging the state's authority to outsource inmate health care without a specific appropriation from the Legislature in the current budget. The unions say it's improper for the prison system to move forward with the project based only on approval from the Legislative Budget Commission (LBC) in September.

The judge also questioned whether that's lawful. "These are the questions I'm raising," Cooper said.

The unions argue in court papers that the only specific appropriation to privatize prison health care operations in the current budget is for $41.4 million in the South Florida region only, and that it's contrary to state law and the Florida Constitution for the LBC to go beyond that. 

In court, Jonathan Sanford, an assistant general counsel at the prison system, said the LBC simply allowed an accounting transfer, as requested by the governor's office, to let the privatization proceed. "I think that's standard procedure," Sanford said. 

But neither side's lawyers, nor Corizon attorney William Williams, sounded very authoritative in explaining how the legislative budget process worked in this case. "It's a fairly arcane process," Williams told the judge, who asked all sides to file legal memoranda by Nov. 28.

The unions left the courtroom hopeful they have a chance to thwart the project from moving forward after seeing the judge hone in on the LBC's power. "I feel good about the issue, and the judge did recognize that it was an issue," said Tom Brooks, attorney for the employee unions.  

-- Steve Bousquet