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Newsmonger: Private gains, public pains

Photo: Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Chuck Kerr

Private gains, public pains

In June 2011 staff at the South Florida State Hospital began to worry Luis Santana, who'd long battled mental illness, had slipped into another psychotic episode, writing in reports that Santana was "pacing, restless, repeatedly flushing the toilet." Some hours later hospital staff put Santana, pumped with six powerful psychiatric meds, into a hot bath.

Staff later discovered Santana's dead body in the scalding water, the skin "sloughing" off his face. That's according to an investigation by the Florida Department of Children and Families last year into Santana's and two other questionable deaths at the 335-bed facility operated by the GEO Care, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the private prison corporation GEO Group.

This summer, just as the Associated Press first reported on the three gruesome deaths at GEO's South Florida psychiatric hospital, GEO was ramping up efforts to take over management of a similar facility in Texas. In a quiet, largely overlooked budget rider last session the Legislature told Texas Department of State Health Services to seek bids from private companies to run one of Texas' public psychiatric hospitals — the caveat being the company could somehow run the facility at 10 percent below what Texas currently spends, all while managing to eke out a profit.

Only GEO responded to the bid, and according to those with knowledge of the proposal GEO has its eyes on the Kerrville State Hospital, where courts every year send hundreds of incarcerated criminal defendants declared incompetent and unable to participate in their own defense, so-called "forensic commitments."

As DSHS reviews GEO's proposal — the agency's set to deliver its findings and recommendation to the Governor's office and the Legislative Budget Board this month — advocates, government watchdogs, and mental health care providers bemoan the prospect of turning Kerrville over to GEO.

As Maria Ramos, a social worker and board member with the ACLU of Texas, put it in a Houston Chronicle editorial this month, "There's a scandal waiting to happen if GEO Care gets its hands on another Texas mental health hospital."

This summer a coalition of civil rights, mental health, labor, public policy, and faith-based organizations signed a letter urging DSHS to reject the GEO Care bid. GOP state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, who represents Kerrville, openly opposes the prospect of privatizing the Kerrville State Hospital. "I'm not necessarily opposed to privatization – you've got to take it on a case by case basis – but in this case there are a lot of potential problems," Hilderbran said. He's troubled that GEO was the sole bidder and worries the company would save money at the expense of quality care and employee benefits.

Last week Hilderbran sent a letter to DSHS urging the agency to reject the proposal. "[The Kerrville State Hospital] has a strong reputation of providing high quality service to its patients," he wrote. "I have serious concerns that privatizing the hospital will result in a dramatic, harmful reduction in the quality of service."

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