Union leery of possible prison health-care outsourcing

Posted: November 17, 2011

Most times, prison nurse Mark Sokolski thinks like a nurse: The 3,500 inmates at the State Correctional Institute at Graterford - his patients - need their medicines and their care, no matter who they are, no matter what they've done.

But there's one underlying principle, he said, that makes prison nursing different:

"There are many, many more inmates than there are staff," he said. "It's extremely frightening until you get to know your way around."

Knowing your way around, he said, takes years - the period of time to build rapport with the inmates and learn the job's special challenges.

Sokolski joined nearly a dozen nurses and others Wednesday on an informational picket line outside the prison, one of several similar picket lines organized at state prisons around Pennsylvania.

The goal of Sokolski, and his union, Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania, was to object to the state's exploring a plan to hire outside contractors for prison nursing and medical-record services.

The change would affect 750 to 800 state employees. The SEIU represents about 300 nurses. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) handles the health-record administrators and other medical professionals.

Last month, Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections put out a two-pronged request for proposals for prison medical services, spokeswoman Susan Bensinger said.

It asked bidders to submit a plan to maintain the status quo of having an outside contractor supply doctors, while nurses and others remained state employees.

It also asked bidders to submit a plan to provide all medical services.

"What we're looking for is cost savings, but we do not want to sacrifice our services or the safety of the health-care department," Bensinger said.

In Harrisburg on Wednesday, State Rep. Mike Fleck (R., Huntingdon) and State Sen. David G. Argall (R., Schuylkill) introduced legislation to block the second option.

Bensinger said that the state had been in the middle of a contract with Prison Health Services Correctional Healthcare Inc. to provide physicians and dentists when the company was acquired by Correctional Medical Services Inc. in June.

The resulting company, known as Corizon, a privately held firm located in Brentwood, Tenn., uses 11,000 employees and contractors to provide medical care in 400 correctional facilities. The ownership change allowed the state to rebid the contract.

Bensinger said that if there is a bidder to replace the services now provided by unionized state employees, the union may have a chance to negotiate to keep the work. SEIU's contract for the nurses runs through June 2015. Bids are due by the end of the year, she said.

Sokolski said the stability of the outside vendor's workforce has varied over his 11 years at Graterford. Sometimes there had been turnover among the doctors; lately there's been less turnover.

Sokolski said the public does not realize that turnover in the medical department contributes to an unsafe atmosphere for corrections staff.

"I think the rapport we establish with the inmates is our best protection," he said. "Better than handcuffs."

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter.

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