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Unions sue to stop Florida's prison health care privatization plan

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's administration was back in a familiar place Tuesday, the courtroom, where two unions are challenging a plan to save money by privatizing health care to the state's 100,000 inmates.

The state has already hired two out-of-state firms to do the work at a minimum cost savings of 7 percent a year.

But the Florida Nurses Association and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) say the privatization plan is unconstitutional and want Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll to block its implementation.

The 2011 Legislature mandated the privatization through the use of budget language known as proviso.

The unions say that's a violation of the state Constitution, and that a policy change must be enacted through a separate piece of legislation.

"You're changing the law from what the law otherwise provided, and that you can't do," argued M. Stephen Turner, an attorney for the nurses. "We have to stop them when the Legislature goes too far."

Carroll did not issue a ruling Tuesday.

Scott's administration lost a similar case last summer, when a union for correctional officers successfully challenged another proviso that ordered the privatization of nearly 30 prisons in 18 South Florida counties.

The state is appealing that ruling.

Assistant Attorney General Jon Glogau said the Legislature acted within its authority when it ordered the outsourcing of health care.

"Every line in an appropriations act is a policy decision," Glogau argued, adding that the law allows the prison system to privatize health care on its own, if it wanted.

At stake are hundreds of jobs for people such as Doreen Von Oven, a licensed practical nurse at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton. Von Oven was in the courtroom Tuesday.

After six-and-a-half years as a state employee, Von Oven earns less than $34,000 a year. If the privatization is allowed, she is worried about losing a job through which she provides her family's health insurance.

"I don't think it's fair at all," Von Oven said. "We went to work for the state, and now, maybe, you're going to get to work for this private company."

Attorneys for both private health care vendors, Corizon and Wexford Health Sources, joined the state in arguing that the privatization plan is legal.

Last month, Department of Corrections Secretary Kenneth Tucker approved the selection of the two vendors at a total cost in the first year of $359 million. Corizon would provide all health care to prisons in North and Central Florida, while Wexford would take over South Florida prisons.

The vendors were scheduled to be providing care by now, but their hiring requires approval by the Legislative Budget Commission, which has no meetings scheduled.

That could be a problem itself. Both sides agreed Tuesday that a proviso is valid only for the duration of the budget year in which it is implemented. The current budget year ends June 30.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Unions sue to stop Florida's prison health care privatization plan 05/29/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 29, 2012 11:12pm]
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