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Battle Over Florida Prison Health Privatization Continues...Where Will It Lead?

Ryan Benk

It could take weeks before a Florida appeals court decides whether to allow the Florida Department of Corrections to move forward with privatizing the prison health care services in several Florida regions. It’s all part of a continuing legal battle between the department and unions representing employees who fear they’ll lose their state jobs.

A decision by Leon Circuit Judge John Cooper last December had both the Florida Department of Corrections and its prison healthcare workers both winning and losing.

In his opinion, Cooper said the department could go forward with contracting with private company, Wexford, to privatize the prison health care services in the South region of the state.

"One way or the other we are going to move those facilities toward privatization."

But, he also said Corizon, another private company, could not privatize the other three regions of the state. He said 10 lawmakers, part of what’s called the Legislative Budget Commission, or the LBC, overstepped their authority when they okayed money for the department to privatize the north and central Florida regions of the state. Cooper said that was a matter best left up to the full Florida Legislature.

“And, that’s just flat, flat wrong,” said Tim Osterhaus, the department's lawyer.

Osterhaus argued before a three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal Tuesday. It was part of the Florida Department of Corrections' appeal of Judge Cooper’s decision back in December.

Osterhaus says while the appeal process goes on, the department’s privatization plans are on hold.

“I think that we’ve expedited this appeal, and if we can get an opinion from this court in the next week or so, I think we’ll be off and running,” said Osterhaus.

"But, if it [the decision] takes three weeks,” asked Judge Robert Benton.

“Well, perhaps we’ll be off and running there too. Hopefully, we’ll get a quick opinion from this court. That was the intent behind our motion to expedite this back in January. So, that’s our hope,” replied Osterhaus.

But, the lawyer representing worried state prison health care workers, Thomas Brooks, says this is all moot, and believes the court should abide by the Leon Circuit Judge’s ruling.

“This case, in my view, depends on whether the judge was right or wrong on Legislative intent. If he was right on the legislative intent, then the LBC [Legislative Budget Commission] does not have any power to vary from what that intent is,” said Brooks.

But, Michael Crews, the Florida Department of Corrections Secretary, says the Circuit opinion was wrong, and hopes it gets overturned. He says privatization could save the state money and if it doesn’t go through, it would add to the department’s deficit.

“If the decision by the appeals court is not overturned, it certainly has an impact on us. And, that would be something that we would have to deal with at that time. Again, we’re hoping the appeals court overturns that decision, and, as we originally intended, when we went down this path, that we’re able to implement health care privatization across the state and across the department," said Crews last year.

But, what happens if the decision isn’t overturned?

“We obviously respect court judgments, and if the court does not move in that direction, then I think that will be an LBC issue, and we’ll govern ourselves accordingly,” said Republican Senator Rob Bradley.

Bradley, the lead Criminal Justice budget writer, says while he’s confident in the state’s legal position, he indicated the Legislature has plans in the event the court does not rule in its favor. But, he says even if that happens, privatization may not be off the table.

“There are contingencies for both scenarios. If the court rules privatization is going forward, we will fund our budget appropriately reflecting that reality. If the court rules otherwise, we will read the court ruling, react accordingly,…but that is the policy of the Legislature: one way or the other we’re going to move those facilities toward privatization,” Bradley added.

Meanwhile, as the court battle continues, thousands of prison health care employees are in limbo as to whether they will continue to keep their jobs with the state or get hired under a private provider.

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.