TALLAHASSEE — As Florida continues to deal with an opioid crisis, state corrections officials are moving ahead on a plan to cut substance-abuse services to make up a shortfall in health-care funding for the prison system.
“We’re in the worst drug epidemic that this country and Florida have ever seen and we’re talking now about reducing programs at the same exact time we’re trying to turn the corner on this epidemic. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me,” Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol & Drug Abuse Association, said Wednesday.
The state Department of Corrections announced the plan Tuesday evening, saying services had to be cut to shift money to the health care program, where there is a $55 million shortfall.
Corrections Secretary Julie Jones said although lawmakers increased health-care funding for the prison system, the department does not have enough money to cover a new contract for medical, dental, mental-health and hospital services in the budget year that begins July 1. The current contract expires at the end of June.
The agency projects it will need an additional $28 million in 2018-2019 to fund the new contract and will have to offset $26.8 million in rising costs for pharmaceuticals.
“In order to secure a health services contractor, fund the increased pharmaceutical budget, and adjust for reductions, we’ve unfortunately had to make some very difficult decisions. At the start of the next fiscal year, we will be reducing some of our current contracts with community providers,” Jones said in a statement.
The reductions will be felt across the state, impacting some 33 community providers that offer substance-abuse services and other programs, ranging from life-skills development to job placement, designed to help prisoners successfully return to society once they have served sentences.
“They are reducing or eliminating contracts that they have with community providers that are providing very valuable, evidence-based and effective programs in order to get to that goal,” Fontaine said.
The cuts include a 40 percent reduction in funding for substance-abuse and mental-health treatment for prisoners returning to their communities, representing a $9.1 million reduction. Another $1.6 million will be cut in transitional housing services.
In the prisons, another $7.6 million in substance-abuse services will be eliminated, and the plan will shift prisoners receiving more intensive “therapeutic” treatment to “more cost-effective” work-release programs, providing another $6 million in savings, according to the plan.
Another $2.3 million will be cut from basic-education re-entry centers, while smaller cuts include $500,000 used to fund chaplains and librarians.
Fontaine said cuts in substance-abuse treatment are particularly troubling.
“Seventy percent of the people in prison have a drug problem, and these are the few critical services we have providing drug treatment and they’re talking about reducing those,” he said.
He also said effective drug treatment can help reduce the rate of prisoners returning to the system, reduce costs and protect communities.
“We’ve seen that over and over again. Research-based drug treatment makes a difference,” Fontaine said.
In an interview Tuesday night with The News Service of Florida, Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said the prison system funding crisis had “been festering for years” and that lawmakers failed to adequately respond to the issue.
Brandes said health-care funding shortfalls have to be addressed, but he lamented the impact on the substance-abuse services.
“You can’t have an opioid crisis and cut opioid funding. You can’t just let people out of prison without some type of transition back into society. These are the types of programs that the research shows provide the best outcomes,” he said.
Fontaine, who said he is talking with lawmakers, legislative staff and Gov. Rick Scott’s aides, suggested one way to address the crisis would be to shift some of the state’s reserve funds into the prison budget, although lawmakers have been reluctant to spend down reserves.
“It’s not like we have to take this (budget-cutting) action. There are other actions that can be done. It just takes the political will to do it,” he said.
The privatization of prison health care has been an ongoing problem for the state, with the Department of Corrections going through a series of companies in an attempt to provide the services. Jones is negotiating a new contract with Centurion of Florida LLC, which provides the current services for about 87,000 inmates. The new contract is expected to be a five-year, $2 billion agreement.