MIAMI — With Florida embarking on an ambitious effort to privatize much of the state’s prison healthcare—the largest such undertaking in the nation—the time is ripe for journalists to take a deeper look into the history of such programs, and the companies getting massive contracts for taxpayer dollars.
Newspapers in Florida have nibbled around the edges of this complex story, and problems with privatization efforts in prisons have been investigated periodically by news outlets around the country. (There are also, of course, plenty of problems with publicly-administered jails and prisons—more on that to come). Yet despite problematic records in other states, and even in Florida, the two companies privatizing healthcare at Florida prisons—Corizon Inc. and Wexford Health Sources—have received little recent scrutiny here.
The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald statehouse bureau has written about the court fight to stop the privatization, which state workers ultimately lost in June. The Times/Herald team has also noted that Corizon, the company that is about to take over healthcare at every Florida prison north of Palm Beach, to the tune of $230 million, has faced problems with contracts “from Maine to Idaho.”
But these companies can be hard to track. Corizon was created in 2011 with the merger of Prison Health Services and Correctional Medical Services, companies that have had their own issues in the past. For example, Prison Health Services had to pay $5 million in fines and restitution in 2004 to resolve a Florida Medicaid fraud case, and has periodically lost contracts around the country because of concerns about cost overruns or problems with service. Correctional Medical Services has had its own difficulties in other states, and even in Florida. It has lost or walked away from contracts as close to home for Florida reporters as Palm Beach County.
The for-profit prison healthcare industry is hard to penetrate, with tangled relationships and complex histories. A year before Palm Beach County dumped CMS in favor of a local company, Armor Correctional Health Services, Broward County dumped another company, Wexford Health Sources, in favor of Armor (which also has a contract with Hillsborough County jails). Armor was founded by the founder of Prison Health Services, and is “politically connected,” according to a story this month by The Tampa Bay Times that looked at the challenges and high costs of jail healthcare.
Wexford hasn’t been written about as much in Florida, though it recently took over health services at nine state prisons in South Florida with, as the Tampa Bay Times wrote, “a five-year contract starting at $48 million a year.” But it has faced issues in other states. Corizon replaced Wexford in Arizona earlier this year, less than a year into Wexford’s conract, after Wexford was fined by the state and drew a class action lawsuit by the ACLU alleging “grossly inadequate medical care.”
Corizon has seen a dramatic uptick in lawsuits filed against it, but those numbers may only reflect the dramatic increase in contracts Corizon has gotten recently. A deeper look is warranted. Wexford, too, appears to be seeing an increase in lawsuits, though its name is not as unique, and easily searchable, as Corizon’s. Again, there’s an opportunity there for an enterprising reporter to dig into the data.
For-profit health companies serving prisons and jails aren’t the only piece of this puzzle that is ripe for investigation. Private companies running entire facilities have also come under scrutiny by reporters, prisoner advocates, and the Department of Justice. Last month the Atlanta Journal Constitution noted that a company running a juvenile lock-up in Georgia was singled out by a Justice Department survey that found it had the highest percentage in the country of sexual contact between the children and staffers— with 32 percent of inmates reporting such contact. The AJC noted the company, Youth Services International, has had problems in every state where it has a contract.
The Tampa Bay Times, meanwhile, has been monitoring the situation in Hernando County, north of Tampa, where three years ago the local sheriff took over jail administration from a private contractor and has managed to run the jail with fewer staffers, even though most of the private company’s employees applied for jobs. The sheriff’s major who led the take-over rejected most of those employees, telling the Times, “Frankly, I don’t understand why a few of them weren’t in jail.” (Hernando County followed the lead of Bay County, in the Panhandle, which dumped the same private contractor a few years ago in favor of public management.)