The Statesman: Bill would give governor control of prison health board

Proposal would allow group to hire private vendors, though legislator says idea is to have more options, not eliminate state system.

April 1, 2011- At a time when top aides to Gov. Rick Perry are quietly exploring a plan to hire private contractors to take over parts or all of Texas' cash-strapped health care system for prisoners, proposed legislation would give the governor control of the little-known panel that oversees the system.

House Bill 3379 also would give the Correctional Managed Health Care Committee the authority to contract with private vendors for the first time.

State Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth , said he worked with Perry's office in developing the expanded role for the committee. But he said the bill is designed to allow the panel to explore additional options, not open the door for private vendors to take over.

"Right now, correctional health care is provided by (the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston) and Texas Tech (University), and we're looking for some way to control the costs better," said Shelton, a physician. "This is an effort to see what else is out there, what other options, that might allow us to lower costs. That's all. There's a lot of land between Lubbock and Galveston, and a lot of other medical schools in the state that might be interested in providing some of the care."

The bill would give the committee the authority to contract with other vendors — "other governmental or nongovernmental entities" — besides UTMB and Texas Tech, although it mandates that UTMB be kept involved so that the state can continue to participate in a federal discount program that provides hefty savings on prescription drugs.

It also mandates that, "to the extent possible," the committee "shall integrate the managed health care provider network with the public medical schools of this state and the component and affiliated hospitals of those medical schools."

Shelton noted that the University of North Texas provides care at a federal prison in Fort Worth, for example.

The American-Statesman disclosed Wednesday that the possible privatization of prison clinics, hospital care, pharmacy services and other parts of the correctional managed health care network operated by UTMB and Texas Tech is being touted by Perry aides and potential vendors as a way to perhaps save millions of dollars amid spiraling costs.

But the ongoing discussions about the proposal are raising concerns among some state officials because private companies interested in providing prison health care have been involved in closed-door talks before the idea has been aired publicly. Those officials have warned of an appearance of a conflict of interest if one of the vendors involved later is awarded a contract.


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