by David M. Reutter
A recently-formed Florida prison healthcare corporation is blossoming with new contracts from county sheriffs who decided to change bidding requirements and in one case eliminate cost as a consideration.
The company, Coconut Creek-based Armor Correctional Health Services, is owned by Miami physician Dr. Jose Armas. In 2004 Armor had no track record, no active contracts and no sales. It now has over $210 million worth of contracts over a five-year period, including medical care for prisoners in Broward, Brevard and Hillsborough counties. Other contracts to treat prisoners in Martin and Lancaster counties are pending.
To obtain the contracts, some behind-the-scenes action occurred. In October 2004, Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne awarded Armor its first contract, worth $127 million, to provide services for the county's 5,000 prisoners. During the bidding process Jenne dropped a requirement that companies must have experience providing healthcare to prisoners. While no explanation was provided for that action, it was known that Armas, through his companies and associates, had been a major contributor to Jennes reelection campaign.
Upon obtaining the Broward contract after only three months in business, in May 2005 Armor sought and was awarded a five-year, $19.9 million contract to provide medical care to prisoners at the Brevard County jail. Once again, wording about corporate experience was altered in the bid specifications. Rather than rely on Armors experience, the county decided to instead rely on the company's individual executives experience.
And in what Hillsborough County's detention chief termed an unusual (but not illegal) decision, Armor obtained the jail's three-year, $65 million prisoner medical contract despite submitting a bid that was millions of dollars more than bids submitted by three competitors. The county had inexplicably decided to drop price as a consideration in the bidding process.
The behind-the-scenes action also included sheriff's lobbying other county officials who were considering contracting out prisoner healthcare. In March 2005, Jenne called St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Marcara and recommended Armor. "He said he knew the guy running it and asked if I would entertain their bid", said Marcara. "We were talking, I brought it up", Jenne told the Daily Business Review. "I told him our people were very satisfied with them." The problem, however, was that Armor hadnt yet started work in Broward County at the time of Jenne's endorsement of the company.
Other sheriffs, including Ric Bradshaw of Palm Beach and J.R. Parker of Brevard County, also tried to peddle Armors services to other jurisdictions. If sheriffs are talking to each other, its been completely on their own initiative, said Armor spokesperson Dana Clay. But Anthony Alfierei, director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami, warned against such unofficial lobbying. The use of surreptitious lobbying that is unknown to the public and unregulated by the public seems to be both unwise and arguably wrong, he said.
Further, Armor hired ex-Hillsborough County Sheriff Cal Henderson as a consultant after he left office in January 2005. His duties have included lobbying sheriffs in Marion, Collier, Sarasota, Manatee, Leon and Lee counties. Such tactics apparently work. In June 2006, the Lancaster County sheriff's department recommended to the county commission that the jail outsource its medical care to Armor Correctional Health Services. The annual cost for privatizing the medical services was an estimated $3.1 million. The jail's in-house medical care budget for 2006 was $2.1 million $1 million less the cost of hiring Armor, according to County Controller Dennis Stuckey. However, Lancaster County prison warden Vincent Guarini stated he couldn't retain qualified medical staff for the lesser amount, citing a turnover rate of almost 200% over the previous 18 months.
Prisoner health care has rapid growth potential in Florida. Currently, the Florida Department of Corrections is entertaining bids to provide care for about 18,000 prisoners in 13 prisons in South Florida. That contract alone is estimated to be worth about $385 million. Apparently there is so much business that companies are teaming up to maximize their profits. On April 19, 2006, it was reported that Geo Care, Inc., a subsidiary of private prison operator Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections), had entered into an agreement with Armor to provide mental health services at the Palm Beach County jail complex over a five-year period. The contract is expected to result in around $2.7 million in revenue during the first year.
The sad part is that rather than awarding contracts based upon merit and fiscal savings for taxpayers, much less providing competent medical care services to prisoners, the stark reality of favoritism and political payback pervades the bidding process. Of course, that is part and parcel of how the prison industrial complex operates.
Source: Miami Herald, Daily Business Review
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