Take a breath before casting judgement on prison health care contract

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

In a pivotal scene from the vastly underrated movie Heat,” the cop-and-robber characters portrayed by Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro go rat-a-tat-tat with each other over why certain men commit crimes.

The robbery-homicide detective portrayed by Pacino cannot help but admire the discipline of the highline burglar found in DeNiro’s Neil McCauley character, yet he doesn’t really understand why the criminal does what he does.

“You looking’ to go back,” Pacino’s Vincent Hanna asks DeNiro as they sit across from each other in a Michael Mann-stylized coffee shop. “You know, I chased down some crews; guys just lookin’ to fuck up, get busted back. That you?”

“You must’ve worked some dipshit crews,” DeNiro fires back with the trademark smirk he first made famous in “Taxi Driver.”

Previous to this exchange, Pacino’s character had laid out what’s at stake by noting DeNiro’s prison record, “Seven years in Folsom. In the hole for three. McNeil before that. McNeil as tough as they say?”

To which DeNiro asks, “You lookin’ to become a penologist?”

The first time I heard that word – penologist – in 1995, I had to look it up. Penology, a subtype of sociology is the study of management of prisons and jails and of rehabilitating convicts.

I am reminded of that word (and, fortunately, that scene from “Heat”) every time I read a news story, of which there have been a great deal recently, about Florida’s prison system. I can almost hear DeNiro ask me, “You lookin’ to become a penologist.”

Yes, Bobby, I sort of am. The management of prisons and jails is something I have paid a great deal of attention to throughout my writing career. In fact, one of my favorite books is Ted Conover’s “Newjack,” which offers a first-hand account of life inside the penal system. If only I had the courage to report and write like him!

Short of that, I have weighed in several times over the past five years about the failures of Florida’s prison system. I can’t remember how many times I blogged against the GEO Group’s conquering of the state’s private prison system. Of course, I can remember breaking the news when Department of Corrections chief Julie Jones announced that the five-year contracts with private health care providers Corizon and Wexford Health Sources would be canceled and renegotiated.

… which brings us to the non-controversy that Centurion of Florida, LLC — a joint venture between Centene Corporation and MHM Services, Inc. — had been selected to replace Corizon as the medical provider in Florida’s prisons.

Some very talented public relations operatives quickly turned this news into a crisis du jour for Jones and Co.

Agency comes under fire for no-bid prison healthcare contract,” blared the Miami Herald.

Prison health contract under scrutiny,” reported the News Service of Florida.

Watchdogs denounce no-bid prison contract,” trumpeted the Tallahassee Democrat.

Indeed, those are all serious sounding reports, but as the poker saying goes, “Winners tell funny stories, while losers yell ‘Deal, deal, deal,’ “

The point of contention is, Democrat reporter Jeff Burlew explains, “… while the (Department of Corrections) negotiated with several different vendors to fill the gap left by Corizon’s departure, it did not go through a formal competitive process before contracting with Centurion.” This has led one of the companies involved in the negotiations, Wexford, to signal it intends to file a bid protest.

This post is not meant to argue whether Centurion is wrong or Wexford is right, although there is one salient point that was missed in the first round of stories.

To the argument that this was a no-bid contract, let’s concede that this was not a formal RFP or technical bid process, but four companies were contacted and asked to submit proposals. Three companies responded, which makes the claim that this was a no-bid or sole-source contract misleading, at best.

Of course some of the first reports about this issue made strawmen of the lobbyists who represent Centurion, as if the losing bidders don’t have their own team of well-connected lobbyists. One reporter even dragged out Ben Wilcox, the on-again, off-again research director for Integrity Florida, to offer some smoke-where-there-is-no-fire rhetorical questions about the awarding of the contract being connected to campaign contributions. Yes, Centurion is represented by a former Speaker of the House, but Wexford’s lead lobbyist is Yes, Centurion is represented by a former Speaker of the House, but Wexford’s lead lobbyist is Jim Eaton, no shrinking violet.

But don’t take my word for this, listen to what the Department of Corrections is saying.

Here is a statement from McKinley Lewis, the spokesperson for the department. “This contract was bid on by three providers, two of which submitted bids that were tens of millions of dollars more expensive than the awarded vendor’s price.”

Winners tell funny stories and losers yell “Deal.”

Centurion was the winner here and the losers want to shuffle the deck. Its their prerogative to challenge the bid, but let’s all take a breath before we pass further judgment on this deal.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.