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South Carolina: Grassroots releases another report. Where's the PSJC???
Report notes failures in privatizing prison health care

Jim Davenport
Associated Press
Apr. 12, 2004

COLUMBIA, S.C. - A report released Monday says the state already failed at privatizing prison health care and should not try to do so again.

"If something didn't work then, why would it work now?" asked Si Kahn, executive director of Grassroots Leadership in Charlotte.

Kahn's group and South Carolina Fair Share sponsored the report written by Marguerite Rosenthal, a social work professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts.

The report's release came as the Department of Corrections wrapped up a bid process to use a private company to provide health care at the state's prisons. Bids were supposed to be returned by March 31, but that was extended until Friday.

Three companies returned bids: Correctional Medical Services Inc. of St. Louis; Prison Health Services Inc. of Brentwood, Tenn., and Wexford Health Services Inc. of Pittsburgh. They agreed to negotiate charges later for privatizing all the Corrections Department's health care services, agency director Jon Ozmint said.

The bids haven't been evaluated.

The state's prisons used a private contractor for health care for more than a decade. But that practice stopped in January 2000. A Legislative Audit Council report from March 2000 was sharply critical of how the work was done and of the agency's poor monitoring.

Correctional Medical Services did the work that the auditors faulted. One shortcoming was a $632,689 payment for HIV treatments the report said was not justified.

Since last summer, Gov. Mark Sanford has been pushing privatization. He has made no decision to go forward, his office said.

"The governor's first priority is protecting the taxpayers of South Carolina," Sanford spokesman Will Folks said. "We're obviously not going to implement that option unless we are sure that it will save money and that the current level of service is either maintained or enhanced."

Kahn and others say the state shouldn't expect to save money and provide the same or better service with a private contractor.

Kahn said the switch would likely put some of the 600 people who now work in state prison health care jobs out of work.

While Sanford "sympathizes with that perspective, it's not state government's job to create an inefficient system simply to employ a few people here or there," Folks said. "We ought to implement systems because they work."

But House Majority Leader Rick Quinn, R-Columbia, says privatization doesn't seem to work in the state's prisons or juvenile justice facilities for a couple of reasons. For one, it's not a profitable business. And it is a business where civil rights issues are in the forefront.

"They're going to cut corners they shouldn't," Quinn said.

And that could lead to lawsuits, which could erode savings governments expect privatization to yield, Rosenthal said.

Quinn says the state's budget crunch has the Corrections Department "considering things that probably are not the best ideas."

Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Mike Fair, R-Greenville, said Sanford's plans can work only if the state saves money or prisoners get better care. Those are "threshold issues," Fair said. "What's the point of doing this if you're not going to save money or improve the quality of services or both?" Fair asked.

Sanford has the authority to require his Cabinet agency to enter a privatization contract. But that move could be derailed through the state budget or with a separate piece of legislation.

Quinn said he would work with Sanford's office to stop the privatization effort. Failing that, he said, it would be up to the Legislature to stop it.

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