AUSTIN (AP) – Private companies are lining up to grab a piece of the action of the nearly $1 billion health care system for Texas prison inmates, according to a newspaper report published Sunday.

Lawmakers say the idea of privatizing the system has still not been fully studied. Rather, they say outside companies are pushing the idea even though the Legislature has yet to embrace it, the Austin American-Statesman reported in Sunday’s edition.

Last week, the chairman of the Texas House Corrections Committee rejected wording that would encourage farming inmate health care out to private vendors. The proposal would have given Gov. Rick Perry control of the prison system’s Correctional Managed Health Care Committee.

“There is a push on to change the system we have, a system that is cost-effective and is a national model, even before we know whether there will be any real savings,” said the House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson.

But privatization backers inserted the same wording into legislation not assigned to Madden’s committee. No action has been taken on that bill.

The American-Statesman has reported that top Perry aides have been involved in meetings with vendors and lobbyists.

Presently, state law places the responsibility for the health care of 154,000 state inmates with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

Consumer watchdogs such as Tom “Smitty” Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, warn that privatization could mean skyrocketing costs for taxpayers and poorer care for inmates. Smith listed the state’s most recent privatization failures: the outsourcing of human services benefits enrollment, the consolidation of data and information systems and the private leasing of state office space.

“A change this large should be vetted completely in the open, not in a back room,” Smith said. “Certainly, if this were vetted in public, it would probably get a big thumbs down.”

Aides to Perry say only that the governor will review any legislation on privatized prison health care carefully before signing it, the American-Statesman reports.

On several occasions, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has hired private companies to provide substance-abuse treatment programs, only to face rising costs because the companies had underestimated them and could not provide services at the promised price.

“Many times when you hire private vendors, you find the only way they can provide the services cheaper is by paying their people less or providing less service,” Madden said. “With medical care, that’s exactly what we don’t want to get into.”

Two members of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which operates the prison system, say the idea was still worth exploring. Tom Mechler of Amarillo and David Nelson of Lubbock say the ongoing losses at the two university health care providers and the state’s tight budget make seeking alternatives urgent.

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