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Union Sues State After Panel Okays Funds For Private Prison Health Care

About 3,000 employees could soon be out of a job after the Florida Department of Corrections recently received the funds to privatize its inmate health care services. A Legislative budget panel gave millions of dollars to the department to contract with two private companies. But now a state employee union filed a lawsuit Friday to block the move.

It all started at a recent Joint Legislative Budget Commission meeting, when the budget panel heard a funding request from Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker to contract with two private management companies:

“The following health care providers were selected: Corizon Incorporated for Health Care Services in Regions I,II, and III, and Wexford Health Sources for Region IV," said Tucker. "Our budget amendment request is to move $57,535,005 into the department’s inmate health services category.”

Tucker says spending money to start privatizing the state’s prison health care services will save taxpayers millions of dollars. That’s the story he pitched to ten lawmakers on the budget panel Wednesday. But, not everyone was buying it, like Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich.

She says the Legislature as a whole should be making the decision, not a small fraction of the legislative body. Rich adds it goes beyond the scope of what the Legislative Budget Commission is supposed to do, which led to a disagreement between herself and Senate Budget Chief JD Alexander, the panel’s chairman.

"The courts, as far as I understand, says it’s just moot because the proviso has expired. So, it leaves me believing that we don’t have the authority to do this and this is actually going beyond the role or the mission of the LBC [Legislative Budget Commission]," Rich said.

"Senator, you’re welcome to your opinion, but I don’t share it," replied Alexander.

The issue of whether it’s legal for the panel to take up the funding request is just one question many opponents of the privatization effort have brought up repeatedly. But, Republican Sen. Joe Negron insists they’re wrong.

“Having reviewed this, to me it’s clear the LBC [Legislative Budget Commission] has the legal authority to approve this budget amendment," said Negron. "It’s based on statutes that have been in place for many years."

Now, it seems the whole issue is heading to court. A union is now suing the state, after the legislative panel approved the funding request in a 6-4 decision.

The union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), filed the suit Friday, and has also filed multiple challenges against the state on the issue of private prison health care.

Union Spokesman Doug Martin says he wishes lawmakers would wait until the legal matters are settled, and the Legislature can take up the matter again. And, during his plea to lawmakers, he made that same argument, adding the budget panel should also think of its negative impact on taxpayers.

“Please have the highest duty, the fiduciary duty in mind, and not just say ‘well, it’s not our money.’ I know you guys take these matters very seriously," pleaded Martin. "So, please come back, and after these questions can be answered and the policy matters sorted out.”

Martin claims privatizing prison health care will not save the state money, and he says reports show the two companies already don’t have a good track record with the state.

He adds it could also cost state workers their jobs. Martin represents thousands who will soon be out of a job, and Chris Snow’s union represents the rest. He’s with the Florida Nurses Association, one of the unions which has also sued the state before on this issue.

“We have 850-plus members of our association who will basically lose their jobs upon implementation of this privatization," said Snow. "They may be offered a job with a private firm, but most likely at a lower salary for lower benefits.”

But, Senate Budget Chief JD Alexander says he thinks privatizing is good for Florida. As for the employees, he says the Department of Corrections has already said at least 98 percent of them could find a job with the private companies.

“I think the vast majority, if not virtually all, will have employment provided to them by the private providers and it’s an opportunity to provide more efficient and effective services to those inmates and help to save money,” said Alexander.

The department hopes to privatize the state’s inmate health care services by January.