Georgia prison workers told of plan to privatize health care; hundreds of jobs in limbo

Credit: David Barnes

Credit: David Barnes

The Georgia Department of Corrections told employees Thursday about plans to privatize health care services for state prisons in a move that could imperil hundreds of jobs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

The dramatic announcement came in a staff-only video conference after GDC spent months researching how it could save money by having a for-profit firm replace current provider Georgia Correctional HealthCare, part of the state’s medical school at Augusta University. GDC has already privatized mental health and dental services, and documents show officials want all prison health care to be private by the second half of 2021.

“We will work to secure employment for the affected employees with the new provider or another agency,” Christen Engel, Georgia Correctional HealthCare spokeswoman, said in an email to the AJC. “There will continue to be a need for correctional healthcare employees with a new provider, and we will do everything possible to ensure a smooth transition.”

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As of late October, Georgia Correctional HealthCare employed 753 doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who administer care for 44,000 inmates at the state’s roughly 30 prisons. It isn’t clear how many of those will be hired by the private firms, but GDC also told workers they would work to place them with the new providers.

Two workers who were on the conference call Thursday said the news was met with dread about those who will lose their jobs if the provider or providers the state chooses doesn’t hire them. The employees spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional consequences.

They said they were told pharmacy workers can expect to work for Georgia Correctional HealthCare through around the end of March and that GDC is close to choosing a pharmacy provider. Others won’t be let go until after a general health care provider is chosen later in 2021, according to the workers who were on the call.

The Department of Corrections didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some experts have said privatization is unlikely to reduce costs and might result in worse care for prisoners.

“I think it’s a recipe for disaster,” Madie LaMarre, who provided and oversaw health care in Georgia prisons for more than 20 years, said in October. “When the budget is already low and you introduce a profit motive, you introduce the possibility of denied needed health care.”

She said Georgia already has a bare-bones budget for prison health care. She cited a 2017 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts that showed Georgia spent $3,600 per inmate per year on health care. Only six states spent less.

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“How much less money do they want to spend?” she asked. “Do they want to be 50th, is that the goal?”

GDC staff has suggested in documents, obtained through an open records request, that the 23-year-old arrangement with Augusta University is outdated. It was negotiated by the late Gov. Zell Miller and other state officials.

“The model has remained largely unchanged while healthcare reform, innovation and delivery have significantly evolved,” a staffer wrote. “The cost for providing healthcare services has steadily increased, and GDC has had difficulty forecasting future costs with accuracy.”

State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, praised GDC Commissioner Timothy Ward earlier this year for researching ways to cut costs.

“In this day of privatization, I’m looking forward to seeing what the consultants come up with,” Powell said. “(We) might find it could save us a tremendous amount of money.”

Documents show the Department of Corrections intends to roll out a new health care system in phases, the first being the replacement of the pharmacy department. GDC agreed to pay the McKinsey consulting firm $1.5 million to research and help GDC find a private pharmacy provider, records show.

This will be the second time GDC has attempted healthcare privatization.

In the 1990s, Prison Health Services won a five-year, $60 million contract, which was then said to be the biggest such contract in the country. Months into that agreement, the state tore up the contract because it “failed miserably,” said LaMarre, who was GDC’s clinical services manager at the time.