TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's administration announced Tuesday that it was moving ahead with privatizing health care services in Florida's prisons, two weeks after a Tallahassee judge refused to rule on a legal challenge by unions representing nurses and other state employees.
Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll on July 2 said it was a moot issue because a state budget provision authorizing the privatization had expired at midnight June 30.
Tucker, an appointee of the Republican governor, said other laws allow him to proceed with the outsourcing.
"This step will allow us to provide the same serves we currently have, which meet state and federal standards, which saving money for the taxpayers," Tucker said in a statement.
Those savings will top 7 percent, he said. Department spokeswoman Ann Howard said no dollar estimate has been made, though, because it's difficult to predict the number and severity of inmate medical problems.
The Florida Nurses Association and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents nonprofessional health workers, had asked Carroll to block the outsourcing.
"Governor Rick Scott is not above the law,' said AFSME Florida Council 79 President Jeanette D. Wynn in a statement. "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,"
A lawyer for the nurses union did not immediately return a telephone message left at his office.
Public unions have disputed the state's claims that it will save money through various prison privatization plans. The unions and their allies in the Legislature contend it's bad public policy to outsource public safety to private companies. The health care proposal is just one of three pending prison privatization plans.
Tucker said he intends to award contracts to Corizon Inc. of Brentwood, Tenn., for services in northwest and central Florida and Pittsburgh-based Wexford Health Sources in the southern part of the state. They are among four companies that submitted responses to requests to provide services.
The unions contended the budget provision was invalid because the Florida Constitution requires that such major policy changes be made through stand-alone laws.
Their argument tracked another Tallahassee judge's ruling that a similar budget provision calling for privatizing nearly 30 South Florida prison facilities was unconstitutional. The state has appealed that decision.
Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Glogau also contended during his argument to Carroll that existing law will permit the health care privatization to go forward with approval from the Legislative Budget Commission. That panel of 14 House and Senate members has not yet considered the proposal.
Both cited a law saying the department should buy services whenever possible from other government agencies, nonprofit corporations and "other entities" if they can do it in a "more cost-efficient, cost-effective or timely" manner.
Tucker also said the outsourcing is allowed by another statute permitting the department to contract with licensed health care providers for services "the department is unable to provide in its facilities."
Existing employees will have an opportunity to interview for jobs with the private contractors, Tucker said.
"As this transition occurs, we appreciate their continued dedication to the people we serve," he said.
Once the contracts are executed, the transition is expected to take 90 to 120 days.
The department also is planning to privatize 20 work release centers across the state, but has not yet sought bids.