Corizon Health's decision this week to pull out of Florida prisons is a positive step toward greater accountability for medical providers that serve the state's inmates. Corizon appears unwilling to meet the high standards for care, accountability and staffing that should be required in state prisons, perhaps because it concluded it could not make a significant profit. Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones and Sen. Greg Evers should be commended for pressing medical providers to improve health care in prisons, and the Legislature should reconsider the privatization of prison medical care.
Corizon officials said the company would not seek to renew its $1.1 billion contract with the state to provide medicare care for 74,000 inmates in North and Central Florida and will leave in six months. First signed in 2013, Corizon's contract was set to expire in 2018. But the company found itself at the center of a controversy recently after a rash of unexplained inmate deaths, charges of medical neglect and inmate abuse at prisons throughout the state were exposed by the Miami Herald. Evers, R-Baker and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, led calls for reform and ordered Jones to renegotiate contracts with medical providers. In February, Jones rebid the state's medical contracts. The new deals will require increased accountability for medical providers, transparency, adequate staffing and more mental health services.
The Legislature directed the state to privatize medical care in prisons in 2011. Lawmakers and the newly elected Gov. Rick Scott contended private companies could do the job less expensively than the state. The initial contracts required the health care companies to serve inmates for 7 percent less than the state. But the companies later requested and won budget increases. Corizon secured the biggest contract, getting $229 million a year to provide services. Wexford Health Services was awarded $48 million a year to service inmates at nine South Florida prisons. While the deals may have made for a more attractive balance sheet, adequate care for inmates was sacrificed on the altar of cost savings. Last year, for example, 346 inmates died in Florida prisons, including 176 with no immediate cause of death. Inmates and their families deserve better.
Corizon's exit gives the Department of Corrections the opportunity to start fresh and select a new provider that will meet all requirements deemed necessary to deliver appropriate medical care to prisoners. The Legislature also should use this opportunity to reconsider its decision to privatize prison health care. With years of evidence in hand, lawmakers would benefit from a robust debate about whether the decision to privatize medical care was a mistake and should be reversed. It may be time for the state to resume the role of medical care provider to inmates. Regardless of who is in charge, it is the state's responsibility to ensure that inmates receive quality medical care without the penny-pinching that has led to charges of negligence, abuse and unexplained inmate deaths.