Florida Judge Limits Privatization of Prison Health Care

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A judge in Florida blocked efforts by the state’s Department of Corrections to privatize the delivery of health care in its prisons in an early December ruling. Although the judge’s decision did not rule out ever aspect of the plan, it dealt a significant blow to the proposal. Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled that health care services could not be privatized in any of the regions north of Palm Beach County because the state legislature hasn’t provided specific funds for outsourcing in those regions. This means the majority of facilities in the states won’t be able to participate as the decision ruled out three of the four regions in Florida’s prison system.

Melissa Sellers, director of communications for Gov. Scott, told the Associated Press, “We are working with the Department of Corrections to appeal the decision and protect hundreds of other state jobs that the department could be forced to eliminate if they lose nearly $90 million in expected savings.”

Judge Cooper supported the legislature’s right to privatize the department’s health care services, but explained this had to be done by a full vote of the entire legislative body. The proposal was approved as part of a budget process, through a vote by the 14-member Legislative Budget commission (LBC), rather than the full legislature.

“Authorizing and funding privatizing health services in Florida’s prisons is the prerogative of the full legislature and not that of the Legislative Budget Commission,” the judge indicated in his ruling.

Essentially, the full legislature approved funding for Region IV and the Legislative Budget Commission attempted to expand that authorization to all four regions and increase the budget from $41 million to $59 million. The judge objected to the concept of the LBC making the second part of the decision and struck down that action, leaving Region IV as the only area approved for the privatization plan.

Corizon, the Brentwood, Tenn. correctional health care firm selected for the proposed $229 million contract to provide the services, released a statement of its own.

“The ruling runs counter to the intent of the Florida State Legislature, leaves the status of hundreds of dedicated Department of Corrections employees in limbo, and will more than likely cost the taxpayers of Florida tens of millions of dollars,” the company contended.

The ruling represented the second defeat delivered to this type of proposal by a judge in just over a year. Leon County Judge Jackie Fulford ruled that an attempt to privatize prisons in 18 South Florida counties was unconstitutional, when the matter came before her in October 2011. The case was very similar, in that the justice objected to the change being made through the budget preparation process, rather than a separate vote specifically on this topic. When a vote on the proposal went before the whole senate in February 2012, it was defeated on a 21-19 vote, with nine republicans and 10 democrats voting “no.”