Another lawsuit over prison health care looms as the latest salvo in a protracted struggle between the state Department of Corrections and the union representing state workers.
The 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Commission will consider Wednesday a state move to outsource health care and pharmaceuticals to private vendors, but the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is warning that the Republican-dominated panel would be overstepping its bounds to do so.
The budget panel will consider a Department of Corrections request to transfer $58 million within its budget so that the contracts can begin on Jan. 1, 2013. The department plans for Wexford Health Sources to provide care at South Florida prisons and for Corizon to provide care in the rest of the state.
Approximately 100,000 prisoners and 2,600 jobs are affected.
Lawmakers directed the department to privatize inmate health care last year. But a legal challenge by AFSCME and the Florida Nurses Association stalled the issue. The challenge centered on a legislative decision to include the change in budget fine print, known as "proviso" language, instead of passing a stand-alone bill.
Since the proviso language expired with the end of the 2011-12 fiscal year on June 30, a Leon County circuit judge said the issue was moot and did not rule on the case.
The department maintains that it can continue with the health care privatization effort under already-existing state law, even without the proviso language.
But Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, who led her chamber's defeat of a different, stand-alone prison privatization bill, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday that her understanding is that the panel's role is restricted by statute.
"It's one of making limited adjustments in the budget, not creating policy change," said Rich, who has served in the Legislature for a dozen years, including several during which she was on the joint budget panel.
AFSCME attorney Tom Brooks said state law restricts privatization efforts to "counties, municipalities, non-profit corporations or other entities capable of providing needed services."
"We believe, by specifically mentioning non-profit corporations but leaving out for-profit corporations like Wexford and Corizon, that statute doesn't even cover the kind of contracting-out they're trying to do here," Brooks said.
Department of Corrections Spokeswoman Ann Howard, however, said the department believes that "other entities capable of providing needed services" would cover such private companies.
Brooks said AFSCME will file a new lawsuit challenging the privatization if the LBC approves it Wednesday.