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As DOC Prepares Appeal In Prison Health Privatization Case, Some Ask 'What Happens To Employees?'

The Florida Department of Corrections is preparing to file an appeal, after a Judge ruled privatizing most of the health care services in Florida’s prisons, illegal. The department says the state would face a massive budget deficit, if it complies with the decision. But, some say the department should stop fighting the ruling because of the thousands of prison health care workers unsure about their jobs.

In his 12-page ruling, Leon Circuit Judge John Cooper said a Legislative Budget Panel violated state law when it gave the go ahead to the Florida Department of Corrections to privatize prison health care services in the north and central regions of the state.

The Legislative Budget Commission is made up of 14 lawmakers. But, in September, when the panel met to discuss the department’s request, there were only 10 lawmakers present, with only 6 voting in favor of the proposal.

Judge Cooper says a small group of select lawmakers does not have the authority to make such policy decisions.

And, some are inclined to agree.

“The full Legislature can look at this again…that, I can accept a little bit better, rather than six people deciding for the whole state.”

Richard is a prison health care worker, who is one of about 3,000 employees affected by the prison health care privatization effort. He asked us to use only his first name because of concerns of backlash at his job.

He says he feels like he’s been caught in a “bizarre” situation, since this whole process started about two years ago. He says between receiving notices that their “jobs would be deleted” and the department pushing back the dates for the privatization to begin, it’s been stressful.

In the beginning, Richard says employees were told the privatization effort would start as early as October of last year, but the timeline keeps changing.

“So, last August we were told, it was going to be by December," said Richard. "Then we were told that it had to be done within 90 days and it got signed in October and we were told it had to be done by January 15th. Then, we were told everyone would have orientation on January 14th and everyone would start working at Corizon at that point. Then, it was pushed to February 1st because of a problem that came up. But, that’s what we’ve been going through with this.”

He says he and his colleagues breathed a collective sigh of relief when Judge Cooper ruled, but their victory was short-lived, when the department decided to appeal.

“You know everybody’s concerned," said  Richard. "They all have families. These aren’t 3,000 people. That’s the point I want to make. It’s 3,000 families that are being affected. I’ve got myself and my son. I know a lot of single parents, I know a lot of people who have families, and there are people are single also. But, for the most part, it’s families that will be affected by this.”

But, department spokeswoman Ann Howard maintains it can do nothing other than appeal because the state will face a huge budget deficit if it complies with the Judge’s ruling.

“This ruling creates an anticipated budget shortfall of up to $90 million over the next 18 months," said Howard.  "This will jeopardize other Department needs and legislative budget priorities which could include additional reductions in staffing and program services across the Department.”   

But, Alma Gonzalez, lawyer for AFSCME, or the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, says the department’s “budget” argument doesn’t hold muster.

“The agency’s position that there will be a deficit is surprising because they are empowered and entrusted to ensure that the health services to these individuals in their care and their custody," said Gonzalez.

"And, so, if they did not properly plan, then I think there needs to be an investigation into what is going on at the Department of Corrections.”

Meanwhile, department Deputy Secretary Mike Crews says the agency will be releasing more updated notices to the employees in the coming days about their future.

“We’re going to continue to provide the healthcare we’re required to provide the inmates, during this process. All of the affected members received original letters telling them what the process was going to be, and kind of the timeframe for that," said Crews. "They will be getting a follow-up letter here pretty soon, so we’re still finalizing that letter as to what that impact will be.”

So far, the department has filed a notice of intent to appeal. And, a spokeswoman says the actual appeal should come soon within the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, the Judge did rule the South Florida effort is legal because the full Legislature vetted it, but the department is still in negotiations with Wexford, the company slated to take over the South Florida prison health care services.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.