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Budget Committee OKs Funding Increase For Arizona Prison Health Care, Despite Concerns

A joint legislative budget committee agreed to increase funding for prison health care Tuesday at the state Capitol, despite several members expressing concern over a lack of details.

The Arizona Department of Corrections asked the Legislature for more money after approving a 20 percent increase in the cost of services provided by Corizon Health.

The per diem rate for health care will go up 20 percent, from $12.54 per inmate to more than $15.

The current contract, set to expire July 1, will be extended to June 30, 2019.

Sen. John Kavanagh asked Michael Kearns, division director for administrative services for the Arizona Department of Corrections, about the department’s shortfall.

“This additional request, of course, is the second shoe that we expected to drop when we were discussing the budget,” Kavanagh said. “Is it anticipated that this will be all the additional money required? Or is there theoretically a third boot about to hit us in the ass later on?”

“What we come to you with today is as much as we know,” Kearns replied. “It’s almost impossible to know anything else that might come up.”

Magistrate Judge David Duncan has repeatedly stated in court that under the terms of the Parsons v. Ryan prison health care settlement, he is going to assess a large fine against the state.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in that case believe Duncan has the power to impose a sanction of more than $1 million just for violations committed in December. Duncan is expected to order the fine this week, before his retirement on Friday. The committee did not discuss the possibility of the potential fine in the open portion of the meeting.

Before going into executive session, Kavanagh joked that if the committee did not approve additional money for the Department of Corrections, “I would assume that we would incur the additional expense, no doubt, of sending cakes to director Ryan, who will be incarcerated for failing to comply with the lawsuit.”

After holding an executive session to discuss the reason for the increase, Sen. Steve Farley said he was concerned that there was still no justification for it.

“It occurs to me that this is basically bailing Corizon out of their responsibility to perform on their contract that they agreed to in the first place,” Farley said.

Kavanagh and Rep. Robert Livingston chided the department for not providing enough details for them to review.

“I was disappointed in the information we received on the bidding process and the additional costs to the state. That’s why we only did $15 million versus 30 (million) because we didn’t have any numbers,” Livingston said, alluding to money that had already been appropriated to the Department of Corrections.

Livingston told the corrections administration at the hearing that if they did not provide any more details about their budget, “I guess with any increase, we can just make you guys eat it. I’m that unhappy, and I’ve been waiting for months to tell you that in a public setting.”

“We didn’t get sufficient backup data to justify it,” Kavanagh said of a previous request by the department for an increase in funds. “We felt uncomfortable budgeting money without justification.”

Kavanagh expressed concern about the potential impact on the overall state budget.

“This has the potential of being a $14 million ongoing hit unless we make corrections eat this,” he said. “The way things are going, we may be structurally imbalanced as early as next year. For those who keep their finger on the pulse, it’s getting faint.”

Despite their complaints, the committee voted to approve the per diem increase. The Department of Corrections has until Aug. 15 to report back to the committee with more details.

In an interview after the meeting, Farley explained why he voted against the increase.

“Corizon committed to provide certain services, which they have failed to provide at an adequate level,” he said. “To then give them a raise seems like rewarding bad behavior.”

Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.