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Privatized prison health care disputed

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 02:41 AM
TALLAHASSEE -

A Florida judge quoted from Sherlock Holmes and conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Thursday as he questioned the state's plan to privatize prison health care services.

Circuit Judge John Cooper did not immediately rule but promised a quick decision after the second of two hearings in the case. The $58 million outsourcing plan is being challenged by two unions representing many of some 3,000 prison health care employees who stand to lose their jobs.

"Sherlock Holmes, what he did say is the solution is the one which all the facts fit," Cooper said. "So, that's what I'm searching for."

No matter how Cooper's search ends, though, his ruling is likely to be appealed.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Federation of Physicians and Dentists/Alliance of Healthcare and Professional Employees contend a legislative budget panel exceeded its authority by approving the privatization plan submitted by Gov. Rick Scott's Department of Corrections.

The unions say that's something only the full Legislature can do. They urged Cooper not to rely on a 14-member committee to determine the full body's intent.

"It's clear that what's happening here is that the governor wants the court to become Carnac the Magnificent and put an envelope up to their head and figure out what it was that maybe somebody would have wanted," AFSCME lawyer Alma Gonzalez said after the hearing.

Lawyers for the state and health care contractor Corizon Inc. argued the Department of Corrections has all the authority it needs to privatize health services under an existing law that permits outsourcing if it saves money.

Cooper cited an earlier challenge to a 2011-12 budget provision that also called for outsourcing. Unions argued in that case that the budget provision was invalid because lawmakers should have passed a substantive law to make such a significant policy change. Another judge declared that case over when the budget expired on June 30 and no one appealed.

"Is that consistent with your argument today that you want me to use that proviso to divine an intent of the Legislature?" Cooper asked Corizon lawyer William Williams.

"Absolutely," Williams responded. He said the budget provision was an expression of the Legislature's intent to privatize health services.

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