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Peeling Away The UConn Health Center Onion

In a potentially explosive Hartford Courant story, reporter Josh Kovner discloses that no fewer than seven – possibly more – lawsuits claiming sexual harassment and workplace retaliation by UConn Health Center administrators have been filed against that part of the UCHC branch that provides mental-health and medical services to the state prison system.

Two women involved in two of the cases, Mr. Kovner reports, “both seasoned clinical social workers at different high-security prisons, said that nothing an inmate ever did or said to them ever made them feel as uncomfortable and compromised as did the actions of a UConn correctional health care manager or a co-worker.”

The cluster of law suits filed between mid-May and September, Mr. Kovner reports, “is the largest cluster of employment cases to hit management at Correctional Managed Health Care since the UConn Health Center first assumed the no-bid contract with the Department of Correction in the mid-1990s. The contract, now hovering around $100 million a year, has regularly been renewed without competition from private correctional health care companies or public-private partnerships.”

Had the UConn Health Center, heavily reliant on successive bailouts involving taxpayer money, been a private enterprise, it may not have survived over the years. Tax payer commitments have created within the health center an atmosphere of inviolability that may well have contributed to the many suits filed against it. Enterprises that cannot fail, state-run or privately owned, create a moral hazard that contributes to business failure.

State and federal bailouts are not just bailouts: They are permission given by the state in the form of money grants clearly rewarding activity that, under ordinary circumstances in the private sphere, would plunge an unprotected business into bankruptcy and court receivership. The state’s continuing bailouts of the UCHC send to its business administrators the implicitly clear message: “Failure with you is not an option because, however dramatic your failure, the resources of the state will rescue you from the inevitable consequences of your failing administration.” Such bailouts facilitate and encourage irresponsible and possibly illegal practices.

The same sense of inviolability is created on the legal side by statutes that require the state’s attorney general to represent state agencies in prosecutorial matters. In cases of gross negligence within the private sphere, employees may sue administrators for money damages. But state statutes, quite reasonably, protect those defending state agencies from money damages by conferring partial or total immunity on the state’s prosecuting agencies, the attorney general’s office and the chief state’s attorney.

This immunity necessarily creates a moral hazard. Both offices are dependent upon information provided to them by the administrators of state agencies who in some cases may use a rented immunity from prosecution as a shelter from activity that may be either ethically or legally suspect.

Any innocent whistleblower in state service, caught between the grindstones of seeming perpetual litigation, which impoverishes the whistleblower, and the sheer power of state resources deployed against him, will be intimidated from calling to the attention of correcting agencies abuses that would not be tolerated outside of state service.

Some responsible legislators are on the verge of proposing that the work done at UCHC should be privatized. Government oversight agencies are passably competent in overseeing problems that occur in the private marketplace. But to suppose the fox might competently guard the hen house may be tempting the fox beyond his endurance to resist.

It is said that the Malloy administration may consider privatizing the UCHC branch that provides mental-health and medical services to the state prison system. Republican State Senator Rob Kane and Democratic Representative Bryan Hurlburt both have called for increased public oversight of the UConn Health Center’s suit battered division. Both the state – and Mr. Malloy politically – are heavily invested in that division of the UCHC that only a short while ago was awarded an exclusive contract by means of a questionable no-bid procedure to provide services for the state’s prisoners.

If the UConn Health Center is broken, those associated with the Malloy administration who nodded approval when prisoner services were awarded to UConn though a highly questionable “memorandum of agreement” now own the problem.

They should fix it.

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