Privatizing will NOT Save Money and will Put Staff and Public at Risk
On Friday, March 16th at 10:00 AM, a panel of witnesses, including frontline Department of Corrections employees, offered testimony at a House Majority Policy Committee hearing (sponsored by Rep. Mike Fleck) at Juniata College that challenged Corbett Administration’s assertion that outsourcing health care services in the DOC will save money and not compromise safety and security both within and outside prison walls.
The House Majority Policy Committee, comprised of Rep. Mike Fleck, Rep. Dave Reed, Rep. Jerry Stern, and Rep. Adam Harris received testimony from Michele Harker, RN at SCI Huntingdon, Donald Moore, Corrections Officer at SCI Huntingdon, Frank Smith, nationally renowned expert on prison privatization, and Kim Patterson, Secretary Treasurer of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania that explored the myriad of risks posed by privatizing this core responsibility of government including reduced prison security, unrealized cost savings and compromised public safety.
Michelle Harker presented testimony portraying the critical role Commonwealth nurses play as the firewall in place to prevent a public health crisis. Many inmates are infected with serious infectious diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis, and Tuberculosis. DOC nurses teach inmates how to maintain their treatment on the outside and educate them on how to prevent spreading their illnesses. “The majority of inmates will return to their communities and, in many cases, the work of DOC nurses is key to preventing these inmates from infecting other family members or the community.”
In addition to protecting public safety, Commonwealth nurses are key to maintaining safety and security within the prison walls, achieved after months of training and years of experience. Donald Moore, Corrections Officer at SCI Huntingdon, described the interaction between the Correctional staff and nurses as a tight unit that takes years to establish. With outsourcing this team will be fractured. “My co-workers and I are very concerned that with subcontracting we will face a huge turnover with the nursing staff and will lose an important part of our security team. We will lose that knowledge of the inmates the nurses provide us and we won’t know that the nurses have our back.”
Finally, panelists challenged the core motivating factor Governor Corbett has used to justify prison health care outsourcing – cost savings. Not only does outsourcing not necessarily save taxpayers money through hidden costs and cost overruns, underbidding ignores the value of the current workforce.
“Considering that the average Pennsylvania prison nursing professional has eleven years on the job, such tenure represents a substantial investment in training and continuing education of nurses, likely tens of thousands of hours accomplished at considerable public expense,” said Frank Smith, a nationally renowned expert on prison privatization. Recruitment and retention within the Correctional system is already a challenge, which will only grow exponentially within the revolving door of as-needed agency nurses. Valuable public dollars will be drained constantly retraining this workforce.
Despite the Corbett Administration’s push to privatize, rising opposition both in the public and legislature is casting a shadow on the Governor’s plan. Legislation (House Bill 1985, introduced by Representative Fleck, and Senate bill 1342 introduced by Senator Argall) that would prohibit outsourcing nursing services in state prisons is gaining bipartisan support in both houses of the state legislature. “This bill has significant bi-partisan support,” said Rep. Fleck, “perhaps more so than any other bill I’ve been associated with.”
Among the audience were well over 30 RNs, LPNs, supervisors and health care workers from 12 separate correctional institutions from around the state – SCI Cresson, Houtzdale, Green, Greensburg, Somerset, Huntingdon, Camp Hill, Fayette, Cambridge Spring, Springfield, Mercer and Forest.