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TX House Considers Privatizing Prison Healthcare

May 5, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas - Attempts to allow private contractors to set up shop in Texas's billion-dollar prison health care system are expected to continue today. A measure defeated in a House committee is popping up again on the House floor. An amendment by Rep. Mark Shelton (R-Fort Worth) would open the door for contractors to compete with the state universities that currently administer medical centers for inmates.

Advocates of privatization contend that contractors could do the job cheaper at a time when state coffers are bare.

However, Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) says past initiatives to privatize state services have proven they don't save anything.

"I have never seen an example in which taxpayers actually saved money. In the end, there are certain moral principles that should not be abandoned for the convenience of not meeting our responsibilities to adequately fund state government."

One health care company that already operates in other states told lawmakers it could save Texas as much as $50 million a year by reducing prisoner access to certain services.

Despite the lobbying efforts - and reports that Gov. Rick Perry is open to the idea - Burnam says he expects the amendment to be defeated, partly because there hasn't been enough time to study the proposal. He adds that even if he believed privatization could save money, he would still be against it.

"I have a problem with privatizing aspects of dealing with our prison population, because the first priority should be on rehabilitation and managing and housing these people, not on maximizing one's profit."

While the Texas prison health care system is currently facing financial woes, it has been called a national model for the way it taps into university resources with oversight from a state committee controlled by doctors.

The privatization amendment is expected to be attached to HB 3790.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX