Kelso to Make Major Announcement about Prison Hospitals

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Federal receiver Clark Kelso was appointed to overhaul the prison medical system. He wants to build new hospitals and clinics for inmates. He also wants $7 billion to pay for it. So far lawmakers have said no. KPCC's Julie Small tells local All Things Considered host Shirley Jahad that Kelso could take action tomorrow against the state.

Shirley Jahad: A federal court ruled two years ago health care in California's prisons was so bad, it's unconstitutional. One inmate a week was dying because of medical mistakes, neglect, and malpractice. The court ordered the state to upgrade prison medical care.

The federal receiver appointed to do that and overhaul the system now wants to build new hospitals and clinics for the inmates, and he says he needs $7 billion to do that. So far, state lawmakers are saying no. Now, the federal receiver, Clark Kelso, could take action against the state as soon as tomorrow. Joining us now to talk about the latest is KPCC's Julie Small up in Sacramento. Julie, tell us what you're hearing there.

Julie Small: Yeah, we heard today that Clark Kelso's gonna call a news conference to make a major announcement. We've been expecting this, because earlier this year, he announced his plan to build new prison hospital and renovate old ones. That would give the prison system 10,000 medical beds for inmates. But he's had trouble getting the $7 billion he needs to build those new prison hospitals.

Jahad: There was a bill to borrow that money to pay for the receiver's plan, but the Republicans in the Senate have defeated it twice now. What's their reasoning there?

Small: Well, they were concerned, because last year, the legislature passed another plan to expand prisons. This wasn't to do with medical care, but it was going to add thousands of new cells and prison beds for inmates. At the same time, the state has been facing the threat that three federal judges will cap the prison population to force California to reduce overcrowding in the prisons.

And they sort of thought, well why should we do all three of these things? Build all these new prison medical beds, build more beds for inmates, when we actually may be forced to let people out? And so they were trying to avoid having to do all that at once, and they wanted more coordination between the plans.

But it kind of backfired, because the judges went ahead and set a trial date for November to consider a prison cap, and the federal receiver said, you know, that's nice, but tough, my plan can't wait, and he threatened to ask the federal court to order the state to pay him the $7 billion, and he's been laying the groundwork to do that.

Jahad: And so, might he do that tomorrow? The state lawmakers, still struggling to pass the budget. Do you think the receiver is going to come out and call for the 7 billion?

Small: Well, Kelso is someone who's worked in government; he was picked for this job because of that, so, you know, he has an understanding of how things work, and the difficulties of passing a budget, and the sensitivity of asking for a big chunk of money right now, so he'll probably just ask for what he needs in the next year. And he said that's about 2-and-a-half billion dollars to start construction.

Jahad: Well given, though, the state budget crunch that we're in, the budget deadline has been gone a month back, does California have the 2 billion to spare? The state controller says there's cash on hand to make it through just October, so how is coming up with another $2 billion for the federal receiver gonna change the picture?

Small: You know, I asked the controller about that, 'cause I was concerned, I knew this was coming, and he says he's in the process of finding lenders to front a year's worth of cash for California in case the legislature doesn't pass a budget within the next couple of weeks. But he did say that he's built in a contingency plan to borrow an extra 2-and-a-half billion if the federal receiver makes good on his threat, and he says it's been part of his negotiations all along.

Jahad: So if the receiver does ask for California to pay tomorrow, when would the state have to pay?

Small: Well, nobody's quite sure, and again, because Kelso's been in government, he's likely to work out something workable, but either way, this will certainly add more pressure on the legislature to pass a budget, and soon.

Jahad: Well on the state budget issue, what's the latest you're hearing? Governor Schwarzenegger taking action yesterday, taking the state controller to court; the governor pushing his executive order that all the state workers get their pay bumped down to minimum wage. Any new developments there?

Small: We don't know. It's in the hands of the court right now. The state controller says that he thinks that there could be a hearing on the matter as soon as a week. Of course, this whole thing could become moot! If the legislature passes a budget, then we won't be cutting workers' pay, and we won't have our one part of our state government suing the other part.

Jahad: Thank you very much! KPCC's Julie Small, keeping a watch for us up in Sacramento.