Sen. Kane: Competition in State Contract Bidding Will Control Costs, Increase Accountability [Hartford Courant]

April 27, 2012

Article as it appeared on
Despite UConn Woes, Malloy Team Says No Need To Bid Inmate Health Service

By JOSH KOVNER, [email protected]
2:16 p.m. EDT, April 25, 2012

A Malloy administration team has recommended ways to reform the UConn Health Center’s costly and controversial prison healthcare division, but the group’s recent report rejects taking what critics say is the logical next step: putting the inmate medical and mental-health program out to bid.

Some lawmakers and lobbyists say competition is precisely what’s needed to control costs and increase public accountability. The no-bid arrangement between the health center and the Department of Correction began in the late 1990s and has never been tested in the marketplace, nor is there an ending date to the deal. The cost to run the program this year is $94 million.

“We knew right from the get-go this would be the result” of the study,” said state Sen. Rob Kane, a Republican of Watertown and ranking member of legislature’s appropriations committee.

“They want to let the state employees figure it out and fix it in-house, between UConn and corrections,” said Kane.

There are about 17,000 inmates in Connecticut’s prisons and many of them have pressing medical and mental-health needs. Prison systems are required to provide such care and prisoners have a constitutional right to receive it.

Several private vendors are saying they can perform at least some of the services for millions of dollars less.

One prison mental-health provider operating in more than a dozen states, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, offered cost estimates in writing to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget and policy agency. The company said it is prepared to take on just the mental-health aspect of UConn’s prison program, and said it could do the job for significantly less than the current cost of roughly $28 million.

Private companies also provide correctional medical or mental-health services in Vermont, Maine, and New York City.

Robert Dakers, a top finance official at the Office of Policy and Management and one of the people who produced the health center study, said privatization nationally has been a mixed bag of success and failure.

He said the study team, made up of people from UConn and the correction department, feel there is enough good about the current system to retain it and work to improve it.

Asked what would be the harm in seeking competing proposals, including one from UConn, Dakers said,

“We’re trying to work toward (implementing) best practices,” Dakers said. “We felt we’d get there more rapidly by doing it with the pieces that are there.”

Early last year, Ben Barnes, who heads the Office of Policy and Management, said in an interview that the money that goes to UConn for its prison division amounts to a subsidy to the financially troubled health center. He said if the money wasn’t paying for prison medical and mental-health care, it would pay for something else at the center.

But Kane and Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, a Democrat of Tolland and a member of the appropriations committee, have said that the prospect of a financial blow to the health center shouldn’t stop the state from exploring whether privatization could streamline some of the bureaucracy in the center’s prison division.

Kane and Hurlburt view the arrangement between UConn and the correction department as the state’s only long-term contract worth more than $90 million a year that has never been put out to bid. There is also the specter of a large state budget deficit, a string of workplace lawsuits by prison social workers, therapists and doctors against health center management, and a perceived lack of transparency in the running of the prison medical and mental-health division.

The report recommends a top-to-bottom analysis by outside experts, standardizing the way decisions are made about inmate medical treatment, and improving communication between the health center and the Department of Correction, among other reforms.

But since the Malloy team rejects subjecting UConn’s program to outside competition, those suggestions fall short, said Kane.

“It’s contradictory. No outside bids, but let’s bring in outside consultants,” said Kane.

Dakers said the outside help could provide some of the same perspective as seeking proposals or bids from competitors.

“We need to benchmark ourselves in terms of best practices, costs, and efficiency,” said Dakers.

The scrutiny on the health center’s prison division has served “to put some market pressure on us. There is a sensitivity to what is going on in the market,” said Dakers.

That’s all the more reason, said Kane, to seek proposals from the health center and anyone else with the know-how and professional acumen to provide these services.