The Florida Department of Corrections said late Tuesday it will move ahead with a plan to privatize prison health services, after a judge declined to resolve a legal fight about the issue.
The decision could lead to more legal wrangling, as the Florida Nurses Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have fought state attempts to contract with private companies for the services.
Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker said in a prepared statement that the changes will save money. Corizon Inc. will receive a contract to provide the services in North and Central Florida, while Wexford Health Sources will receive a contract for the southern part of the state.
"Its a decision that's best for the taxpayers,'' Tucker said. "This step will allow us to provide the same services we currently have, which meet state and federal standards, while saving money for the taxpayers. This step will be a cost savings in excess of 7 percent using private vendors."
But Don Slesnick, an attorney for the Florida Nurses Association, said the department is hurting state employees.
"It doesn't shock me,'' Slesnick said. "It disappoints me that the state is that devious and the DOC is being that anti-employee."
Lawmakers last year included fine print in the state budget that called for privatizing inmate health services. But the nurses association and AFSCME challenged the constitutionality of using the budget fine print, known as proviso language, to make such a change.
Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll, however, declined this month to rule on the constitutional question because the proviso language expired with the June 30 end of the state fiscal year. That left unclear whether -- or how -- the privatization would take place.
State attorneys have argued that the Department of Corrections has the legal authority to privatize health services, even without the proviso language. But attorneys for the nurses association and AFSCME last week filed motions seeking a rehearing before Carroll -- a move that could provide an avenue for a continued challenge.
Ann Howard, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said it was not immediately clear how soon contracts could be signed with Corizon and Wexford. After the contracts are executed, the department said it expects the changes to take place during a 90- to 120-day transition period and that current employees will be able to interview for jobs.
"We still will continue to work with our employees and seek the best solutions for them and the inmates we serve,'' Tucker said. "Change isn't easy, and we know that it can sometimes be unsettling; however, the hard work of our employees is greatly appreciated and recognized."
Privatization of state jobs is highly controversial, at least in part because workers worry they will see reductions in benefits and pay if they go to work for contractors. AFSCME Florida Council 79 President Jeanette Wynn issued a statement criticizing Gov. Rick Scott and the decision to move forward with the privatization plan.
"Governor Rick Scott is not above the law; he cannot charge ahead with this scheme to funnel more of our tax dollars to his big-business buddies without the input from the Florida Legislature or the legal system,'' the union president said.