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The Associated Press May 24, 2012, 11:43AM ET

NC House wants to go slow on prisoner health care

Legislators are trying to prevent North Carolina prison officials from privatizing inmate medical care for all of the state's adult prisoners unless they get the express approval of the General Assembly.

The full House agreed unanimously Wednesday to a Senate bill designed to set aside $205.5 million to eliminate a shortfall in the state Medicaid program this fiscal year by pooling money from several government pots and some unanticipated tax collections.

House leaders, some of whom have heard state workers' objections to privatization, amended the measure earlier in the day in their budget-writing committee to include a provision that would restrict what actions the Department of Public Safety could take on the issue of prisoner health services through June 2013.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Public Safety unveiled a request for proposals from companies interested in taking over the health care at all of its adult prisons.

The department's Division of Adult Correction made the request along with two other previous requests for outside vendors to meet the Legislature's previous directives to try and find ways to reduce costs for health care for its nearly 39,000 inmates at 66 prisons statewide. The state prison system spends about $250 million a year for inmate medical costs, department spokeswoman Pam Walker said.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina has criticized the privatization idea, saying similar efforts haven't worked in other states and could affect 2,000 workers who have some role in providing the medical care.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, whose district is home to a many state workers, said the correction division should take a slower approach.

"A lot of our concern is that the savings would come simply from cutting staff," Dollar said in an interview.

The provision says that for the next year the state can't issue any requests for proposals or enter into any new contract for the operation or management of prisoner health care services unless the Legislature passes another law. Dollar said the delay could give time for the new hospital at the close-custody Central Prison in Raleigh to treat more patients and determine the state's needs.

The bill, which was approved 113-0, now returns to the Senate, but it wasn't immediately clear whether senators would accept the change. The provision could upset an agreement by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue and Republican legislative leaders to close the Medicaid hole. The state Medicaid office is running out of cash to pay providers

Perdue will be asked to sign the bill into law. Press Secretary Chris Mackey said the bill needed to be passed by the end of the week or "the state will not be able to pay providers who serve the most vulnerable among us, including children and seniors."

Walker said agency leaders believed the Legislature already had given it authority to seek proposed contract bids to research whether privatization made sense. The agency said it performed the request for proposals because it was a good way to get a sense of whether such a privatization effort was doable.

"Issuing an RFP doesn't mean we have to end up with a contract," Walker said.

Earlier this year, potential vendor Corizon Inc. wrote to state officials saying it wouldn't submit a bid because the parameters of an earlier request were impossible to meet or would cancel out cost savings. The Department of Public Safety canceled the request and posted another one May 11. The deadline for vendors to file bids is June 14.

Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said he's happy to work with House and Senate leaders on the prison issue. The association, a local of the Service Employees International Union, released a booklet last week saying the privatization of prison operations has never been successful in more than 30 states where it's been tried.

"It's certainly not good for the taxpayers, and it's not good for the prison systems and it's not good for our employees," Cope said.

Cope alleges the request for proposals is designed to produce a contract for the winning company where high-ranking department workers can find employment after Perdue leaves office in January.

Perdue's office didn't respond to those allegations Wednesday but pointed out the Medicaid finance cleanup -- without the prison provision -- had been negotiated with House and Senate leaders for three months.

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