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Politics

Dems Call Correctional Medical Authority Closing Invitation to Litigation

August 21, 2011 - 6:00pm

Democratic legislators on Friday criticized the Legislature for allowing the Correctional Medical Authority to close last week, saying it could lead to a lawsuit.

The CMA provided oversight of medical care of Florida prisoners for a quarter century, but was the victim of a funding fight in the Legislature this year. Lawmakers passed legislation to eliminate it, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed that legislation, in part because of concern that the state might be sued over how it cares for inmates if it got rid of CMA's oversight of prison health care.

However, lawmakers didn't provide any funding for the office.

The shuttering of the Correctional Medical Authority was a grave mistake opening Florida and Florida taxpayers to the possibility of widespread financial and legal repercussions," Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said Friday.

CMA was set up in the 1990s as part of a consent agreement to end a lawsuit over how prisoners were taken care of.

By allowing legislative interference to block its funding, the closure of the CMA potentially violates, at a minimum, the spirit of Justice Susan Blacks 1993 court order settling the Costello v. Wainright class action litigation," Joyner and Pafford said in a joint statement. "Despite our efforts, and the governors veto of legislation eliminating the oversight group, the CMA was finished off behind the scenes, and outside the scrutiny of the media, the public, and other key stakeholders.

"To pre-empt any attempts to hold the state of Florida in contempt, or open the door to new litigation as a result of its closure, we urge Governor Scott to explore all possible options, including the issuance of an executive order sustaining the CMAs operations pending the return of the Legislature."

The issue of the agency's possible elimination has come up for a couple years. During the transition period between the Crist administration and the Scott administration, CMA officials contemplated that possibility in a transition document made available to the incoming governor and his staff.

"If the CMA is eliminated, Florida would be vulnerable to legal challenges to the constitutionality of health care provided to approximately 103,000 inmates in state correctional institutions, which could result in costly federal court intervention," the transition document said. "Approximately 35,000 inmates are released to the community each year. Significant portions of this population have communicable diseases which, if not treated appropriately, pose a public health risk to the community at large. Approximately 16-20 percent of the prison population has a diagnosed mental illness and a growing portion of this group has severe and persistent mental illness requiring ongoing treatment and aftercare planning."

That risk to the public at large was cited by Scott when he vetoed the legislation eliminating the agency.

"I believe this action is unwise because it removes a valuable layer of oversight of the state prison system and could cause public health and safety risks if appropriate care is not provided to inmates in the state prison system," Scott said in a veto message in May. "The continuing reporting of findings in CMA surveys indicates continued oversight of the prison health care is necessary."

Its demise comes just a couple of months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California wasn't doing enough to make sure prisoners weren't victims of cruel and unusual punishment, though not because of health care but because of overcrowding. Still, the ruling raised fears that a similar opinion regarding health care could lead to prisoners being released.

Several other states have had the federal government intervene in the medical treatment of inmates, often as the result of litigation.

The Scott administration had looked for ways to keep CMA going, and the Department of Corrections and the Correctional Medical Authority had drawn up an agreement, signed this summer, that would allow the six full-time CMA employees to be absorbed into DOC, and do some of the same work. That agreement, however, was withdrawn.

In addition to the CMA staff of six employees, the agency supervised teams of health care providers who did surveys of prison health care to make sure they were up to minimum care standards.

The Legislature last year had allocated $741,559 for fiscal year 2010-2011 to CMA, which was slated to conduct 19 prison surveys in the past year.

A note sent by CMA Executive Director Murdina Campbell to members of the CMA governing board said the agency shut down at 5 p.m. on Thursday.

"We are honored to have served the agency all these years and are proud of the accomplishments most importantly, assisting the Department of Corrections over the past 25 years in providing appropriate health care consistent with Eighth Amendment requirements of the United States Constitution," Campbell wrote. "The CMA has served the state well as a unique solution to ongoing federal intervention in matters of inmate health care."

Lane Wright, a spokesman for Scott, told the Palm Beach Post Thursday that Scott has done everything he could to save it, and that it was unfortunate the Legislature didn't see its value.

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