Florida Prisons to Cut Programs Due to Health Care Cost Hike

Florida prisons are cutting mental health, substance abuse and re-entry programs to help make up for a $50 million shortfall in its healthcare and pharmaceuticals budgets.

Even prison chaplains and librarians will feel the sting for what the Department of Corrections blames on underfunding in the budget the Legislature approved in March.

"First and foremost, it's our responsibility to ensure the security of individuals in our custody and to make certain their human and constitutional rights are upheld while incarcerated. Healthcare is one of these constitutional responsibilities," Corrections Secretary Julie Jones said in a press release. "We've unfortunately had to make some very difficult decisions."

The department said it will need $28 million more for health care and another $22 million for pharmaceuticals. It said the shortfalls come on top of $24.9 million in operational cuts in the budget that takes effect July 1.

The department will cut contracts with programs and services by $30 million to help make up for the deficit. The other $20 million will come from further operational cuts.

"This is going to make a bad situation worse, because we need to be doing more to provide transitioning services for inmates and getting them ready to be successful when they leave state prison," said Democratic Rep. David Richardson, one of the Legislature's prison experts. "If we just hand an inmate $50 and open the gates and say 'Good luck,' that's not much of a transition program. We've got to be doing a lot more."

Republican Gov. Rick Scott's office pointed out that he had recommended a $169 million increase in the Department of Corrections budget.

"The annual budget the Florida Legislature passed this year was lower than the governor's recommended budget, which has resulted in these temporary funding shortfalls. Governor Scott is confident that Secretary Jones will work with her stakeholders, and members of the Legislature, to ensure that this issue is temporary, resolved quickly and handled appropriately," Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said.

The governor or Legislature would have to call a special session to increase the budget, or Scott would have to declare the situation an emergency, a prospect Richardson said he doubts will happen as Scott focuses on a run for U.S. Senate.

In-prison substance abuse programs will be cut by $7.6 million and the department will save $6 million by eliminating therapeutic bed facilities, which house prisoners undergoing substance abuse treatment separate from the rest of the population. Instead, the department will increase less expensive work-release facilities.

Substance abuse and mental health programs for prisoners who have been released and on probation or parole will be cut by 40 percent to save $9.1 million. Post-release transitional housing will be cut $1.6 million. Money for chaplains and librarians will be cut $500,000.

The department will also cut back on maintenance and repairs, travel, planned vehicle replacement and other operational items.

"It's going to be difficult, but we have to pay for those expenses," spokeswoman Michelle Glady said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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