Committee Holds Hearing on Fleck’s Bill to Prohibit Outsourcing of Nursing Services at State Prisons
HUNTINGDON – The House Majority Policy Committee today conducted an informational hearing on House Bill 1985, sponsored by Rep. Mike Fleck (R-Huntingon/Blair/Mifflin), which would prohibit the outsourcing of nursing services at state correctional institutions in Pennsylvania. The hearing was held on the campus of Juniata College in Huntingdon, where SCI Huntingdon and SCI Smithfield are located.
Specifically, Fleck’s legislation would block the Department of Corrections (DOC) from using Commonwealth funds to hire a private company to provide nursing services at state prisons. The bill was introduced late last year following a decision by Gov. Tom Corbett to empanel a commission to evaluate potential privatization, public-private partnerships or managed-competition opportunities with the goal of reducing the costs of state government.
“This is an important bill, especially for my district where two state prisons are located, making them the largest employers by far,” Fleck said during his opening remarks. “We wanted to have a full vetting of the bill, both pro and con. But unfortunately, the private contractors we invited to participate declined to attend along with the DOC.”
During the hearing, Fleck, Policy Committee Chairman Rep. Dave Reed (R-Indiana) and other committee members heard testimony from state prison employees, an officer with the union that represents DOC nurses and a prison volunteer.
Michele Harker, a registered nurse who has spent the last 25 years working in state prisons, told the panel the outsourcing of nursing services is a bad idea that would compromise the safety of prison staff, inmates and the community.
“The reality that security and control are the most important missions at our workplace dictates the way I deliver care and how nurses are prepared before they start the job,” said Harker. “Although I’ve worked with some very dedicated non-DOC nurses and subcontracted staff, the level of turnover is much higher than with Commonwealth employees and there doesn’t seem to be that focus on the core mission of security. I honestly can’t say if I would work for a contractor who is not focused and foremost on security.”
Donald Moore, a veteran corrections officer at SCI Huntingdon, explained how much they rely on Commonwealth nurses for assistance.
“My co-workers and I are very concerned that with subcontracting we will face huge turnover with the nursing staff and we will lose an important part of our security team,” said Moore. “I know many people in the public think we are overreacting, but we don’t get a second chance in there. One slip up, one misplaced needle, one inmate who has conned a nurse or doctor into giving him meds he doesn’t need is all it takes to put us in danger.”
Kim Patterson, secretary treasurer for SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, told committee members that DOC nurses have years of experience that makes them a critical component of a prison’s security system.
“The average length of service for DOC nurses is 11 years and they know that every inmate is both a potential risk and is often looking to abuse the medical system by accessing drugs or getting a trip to the hospital,” Patterson said. “DOC nurses know the inmates. They understand the security protocols and they work closely with the corrections officers to maintain security at all times.”
“Before the Commonwealth decides to expand prison health care outsourcing, legislators should have a clear guarantee that there will be cost savings that do not jeopardize either security or public health,” Patterson went on to say. “Based on the record, this guarantee cannot be provided and any further subcontracting of prison health should be rejected.”
Frank Smith, a volunteer with Private Corrections Working Group, testified about trends that have developed nationally regarding for-profit prison services providers.
“With contracted nurses, there is a vulnerability you wouldn’t expect. It’s a job that has to be learned over a period of time from peers and training. You’re dealing with a unique specialization here and to bring in contract nurses with little experience and training is just ludicrous,” Smith said. “It’s not a situation the taxpayers can win because of all the extra costs that occur over time, including escapes and inmate medical expenses.”
“In this day and age, we do need to look at privatization of certain areas, but corrections is a core government function and should not be one of them. The DOC has even said that there is no guarantee that privatizing nursing services will result in any real cost savings,” Fleck said in closing. “This bill has significant bipartisan support and I fully believe if we get the bill to the House floor, that it will be approved. We are asking the governor to give up some authority and that is difficult. So we need to keep up the pressure.”
Other committee members in attendance included Rep. Adam Harris (R-Juniata/Mifflin/Snyder) and Rep. Jerry Stern (R-Blair), who are both co-sponsors of the legislation.
House Bill 1985 is awaiting a vote by the House Appropriations Committee.
For more information on Fleck and his legislative priorities visit RepFleck.com
State Representative Mike Fleck
81st District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Andy Briggs