State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa (Pic by Mark Foley)
State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa (Pic by Mark Foley)

As prison health care watchdog closes, lawmakers ask why

By | 08.19.11 | 5:04 pm

The watchdog agency for Florida’s prison health care system officially closed down on Thursday, prompting criticism from lawmakers who hoped it could be preserved.

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner and Rep. Mark Pafford, both Democrats, said they worried the shuttering the Correctional Medical Authority — which was created to help ensure that inmate care complies with the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment — would weaken oversight of the medical treatment for prisoners and could expose the state to lawsuits.

Gov. Rick Scott noted similar concerns earlier this year, when he vetoed a measure that would have shut down the agency. In his veto message, he warned that the state could face “public health and safety risks if appropriate health care is not provided to inmates in the state prison system.”

The Legislature had not provided funding for the program, but news reports suggested Scott and Department of Corrections Secretary Edwin Buss hoped to come up with a way to keep it running. The agencies drew up an agreement (posted below) that would have allowed the Department of Corrections to sustain the medical authority, but the House asked for it to be withdrawn from consideration by the Legislative Budget Commission, which would have needed to sign off on the plan.

House spokeswoman Katie Betta said lawmakers already dealt with the issue — and made their intent clear — when they crafted the current state budget.

“We were looking for areas where significant cuts could be made, and decided to maintain funding for services rather than maintaining funding for a bureaucratic administrative function that was instituted as a result of a lawsuit that was settled over twenty years ago,” she wrote in an email.

Joyner and Pafford are calling on Scott to look for a way to “resuscitate” the authority by some other means, such as an executive order. A spokesman for the governor’s office said it was not immediately clear what, if anything, Scott could do.

“It’s unfortunate the Legislature didn’t see the value of this program,” said Lane Wright, Scott’s press secretary.

Joyner said the program could prove especially valuable as the state’s corrections system works on a plan to hand over prison health care, as well as prison operations across South Florida, to private operators that will be required to achieve cost savings, which could increase pressure on services provided to inmates.

The Medical Authority was created in response to court cases that found inmates were not receiving adequate care. (More information on the program’s mission and origins can be found here.) Joyner said that without the Medical Authority, the state could face the possibility of more lawsuits challenging conditions in Florida prisons — a risk she feels it should not be taking

“We need it regardless, irrespective of who the provider is, whether it’s privatized or not privatized,” she said.

The Department of Corrections has not responded to messages seeking comment.

Here’s the full statement from Joyner and Pafford:

Senate Democratic Leader Pro Tem Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) and Representative Mark Pafford (D-West Palm Beach) on Friday issued the following joint statement on the closing, effective 5 p.m. Thursday, of the Correctional Medical Authority:

The shuttering of the Correctional Medical Authority was a grave mistake opening Florida and Florida taxpayers to the possibility of widespread financial and legal repercussions. The CMA was the product of a joint agreement between the federal court and the State of Florida, and designed to end costly and lengthy litigation sparked, in part, by the callous indifference of an agency tasked with the healthcare of thousands of persons incarcerated in Florida’s prisons.

By allowing legislative interference to block its funding, the closure of the CMA potentially violates, at a minimum, the spirit of Justice Susan Black’s 1993 court order settling the Costello v. Wainright class action litigation.

Despite our efforts, and the Governor’s veto of legislation eliminating the oversight group, the CMA was finished off behind the scenes, and outside the scrutiny of the media, the public, and other key stakeholders.

To pre-empt 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 the CMA’s operations pending the return of the Legislature.

We also look forward to examining a revision of the current statute not only to protect CMA’s independence, but its isolation from any potential political meddling in the future.

Here’s the agreement that was withdrawn:

CMA Agreement

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