The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) on October 3 rejected a bid by GEO Care to privatize the Kerrville State Hospital, one of ten state facilities that care for people with mental illnesses.
DSHS reported to the Texas Legislative Budget Board that GEO’s proposal to operate the Kerrville hospital received a score of only 64 out of a possible 100. The passing grade was 70.
GEO’s proposal met the requirement mandated by state law that any private contractor taking over operations of a state hospital must save the state at least 10 percent.
However, the only way that GEO could achieve these savings was by reducing staff by 21 percent and cutting employee benefits. DSHS reasoned that reducing staff would put patient care at risk.
Reducing benefits, according to Seth Hutchinson, organizing coordinator of the Texas State Employees Union/CWA Local 6186, also would make it more difficult to provide quality care because doing so would make it harder to retain and attract qualified hospital staff whose compensation is already below market standards for comparable work.
GEO Care, a subsidiary of GEO Group, which among other things operates private incarceration facilities, manages a mental health hospital in Montgomery County, Texas that is county owned but state funded. DSHS has cited the company for flaws in the care that patients receive at this hospital.
Hutchinson said that a coalition that included advocacy groups and the union played an important role in making sure that GEO’s proposal received careful vetting.
“Organized power delivers,” Hutchinson said. “Everyone involved in the decision-making process knew that there was an organized and mobilized constituency intent on making sure that patient care came first and shouldn’t be sacrificed to a low-bid outfit with a questionable track record.”
“Our organizing efforts paid off!” read a blog entry at Grassroots Leadership, the community group that helped organize the coalition that opposed privatization at the Kerrville hospital. “We and our allies sent a sign-on letter urging state leaders to halt privatization efforts. In September, more than 700 people from across Texas signed our petition to stop private prison corporation GEO Group from taking over the Kerrville State Hospital.”
Hutchinson said that TSEU members made hundreds of phone calls and met with lawmakers who represented districts where state hospitals are located. Several of these lawmakers at the request of union members wrote DSHS officials to express their concerns and opposition to the privatization plan.
“Today’s victory is for all those who care about the mentally ill and who oppose profiting off incarceration and detention,” said the blog entry at Grassroots Leadership.
Hutchinson said that the victory was an important step toward ensuring that care at the state’s hospitals was not compromised, but he warned that the fight isn’t over.
“Rider 63, which began this privatization process by directing the DSHS to contract out a state hospital, still remains in place,” Hutchison said. “The decision made by the agency all but guarantees that this issue will be pushed into the next legislative session, where we’ll have to fight to overturn Rider 63; otherwise, the state will have to reopen bidding on this privatization scheme. TSEU will continue to meet with lawmakers and ask them to commit to overturn rider 63 in the next session.”
Hutchinson urged union members to talk to people with whom they work about this victory and use it to get more state employees to join the union and the union’s political action group COPE. “The strength of our movement depends on more people joining the union and our political action committee,” he said.