TALLAHASSEE — A union for state workers is racing to sue Florida after lawmakers cleared the way Wednesday to privatize health care in prisons.
A legislative panel voted 6-4 to allow the state's Department of Corrections to try and plug its $60 million deficit by turning inmate care over to private for-profit companies. The lawsuit could be filed as early as today, said Doug Martin, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME.
About 2,600 state workers who provide prescriptions, mental health and other medical services to prisoners find their jobs and benefits in limbo over the deal, which was vetted through a 14-member budget panel, with four members absent, rather than through the more rigorous legislative committee process.
The Legislative Budget Commission hears agency requests for funding shifts between legislative sessions, and is taking on an unprecedented authority by approving the controversial change, said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston.
Florida is the third-largest prison system in the United States with more than 100,000 inmates, and is the largest state to attempt to privatize its health care system. If one member had voted differently, the proposal would have died on a tie vote.
"This is the most egregious of the over-reaches I can recall," said Rich. "This is going to court, and I guess we'll see what the courts have to say."
The Department of Corrections immediately applauded the change, praising Gov. Rick Scott for helping to push it through.
With legislative approval, the state can now move forward with already-bid contracts for inmate care to Corizon Inc. in Northwest and Central Florida and Wexford Health Sources in South Florida.
Those companies won bids to care for inmates after lawmakers amended the state budget in 2011 by using last-minute changes known as proviso. The state's use of proviso became the sticking point in a lawsuit that tied the issue up in courts until the language expired June 30.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, defended the legality of the approach and said he wouldn't consider voting on the issue if he didn't believe it was appropriate.
He also pushed Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker and agency health administrator Tom Reimers to specify how the private companies would achieve their promised 14.9 percent savings.
Staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.