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Florida Lawmakers Disband Correctional Medical Authority

The Florida legislature did an end-run around a veto by the Governor by eliminating funding for the state’s prison medical oversight agency, thereby causing it to disband.
With Florida turning to private companies to provide prisoner healthcare services, there is concern that medical care will decline and potentially subject the state to litigation absent adequate oversight.

The Florida Correctional Medical Authority (CMA) was created in July 1986 in response to a class-action lawsuit. Brought in 1972, Costello v. Wainwright, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 72-109-Civ-J-S, challenged conditions in Florida’s prison system. The federal district court maintained jurisdiction over the state’s prison medical services until 1993, when the state committed to using CMA to oversee healthcare in its prisons. [See: PLN, Aug. 1993, p.14].

The legislature’s decision to slash the CMA’s $796,151 budget came after Governor Rick Scott vetoed a bill to close the agency. At the time, Scott said the CMA was a “valuable layer of oversight,” and its elimination “could cause public health and safety risks.”

When CMA closed its doors on August 18, 2011 after being de-funded by state lawmakers, supporters of the agency spoke out about the potential repercussions.

“The recent elimination of the CMA does not comport with the letter or spirit of Judge Susan Black’s 1993 court order, which closed the long running Costello v. Wainwright case,” said John Bailey, CMA’s chairman since 2005. “Florida is now at risk of further federal intervention, and at increased risk of further class-action lawsuits relating to health care of prison inmates.”

Two Democratic lawmakers also raised objections to CMA’s abrupt demise. “To preempt any attempts to hold the State of Florida in contempt, or open the door to new litigation as a result of its closure, we urge Governor Scott to explore all possible options, including the issuance of an executive order sustaining CMA’s operations pending the return of the legislature,” state Senator Arthenia L. Joyner and Rep. Mark S. Pafford wrote in a joint statement.

“The governor did everything within his authority that he could do to save that program. It’s unfortunate that the legislature doesn’t see the value in that program,” said Scott’s spokesman, Lane Wright. “It had not only a medical value for the inmates there but it also was a good thing from a financial standpoint as well. We are looking at whatever options might be available but we’re not even sure there are any.”

Over the years, the CMA became a national model for oversight of prison healthcare. Prisoners also reported that the agency was effective in protecting their right to receive adequate medical services.

“While at Tomoka Correctional, there was an epidemic of MRSA. Medical was filled with prisoners seeking treatment for boils but nothing was done to treat its spread or acknowledge a problem,” said Florida state prisoner and PLN contributing writer David Reutter. “I wrote the CMA. A week later, the head nurse called me out. She was livid I had gone outside the prison, and she contended the problem was bird mites.

“A medical orderly later told me a review of prisoner medical records found over 200 cases of prisoners exhibiting symptoms of staph infection,” he continued. “Shortly thereafter, nurses came to the dorm to inspect every prisoner for MRSA. Those with symptoms were treated and preventative procedures were implemented.”

Bailey predicted that the CMA’s closure “will expose the state to a resumption of the conditions that led to the Costello v. Wainwright class-action lawsuit – an enormously expensive proposition for the state.”

State Senator Mike Fasano agreed. “It’s very dangerous,” he said. “It’s the wrong way to go because in the long run it may cost the taxpayers more.”

That is particularly true considering the Florida Department of Corrections has contracted with two for-profit companies to provide prisoner medical care: Corizon and Wexford Health Services. Since private companies have an incentive to cut corners in order to generate profit, more oversight is needed, not less.

Sources: Palm Beach Post, www.saintpetersblog.com, Sun-Sentinel

Related legal case

Costello v. Wainwright


 

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