Privatization Takes Over North Carolina

By Don Rollins

High on a hill overlooking the cityscape of downtown Raleigh sits what’s left of Dorothea Dix Hospital. Named for the bulldog of a mental health reformer who inspired local advocates – and thus vicariously shamed state politicians, influential physicians and old money socialites into doing something – Dix was begun in 1856 as a mostly publicly funded asylum for the indigent.

Thousands of troubled souls have since been treated there; thousands more have been employed there.

But beginning with the Reagan administration and continuing with subsequent state executives and legislatures, North Carolina’s psychiatric services have since been morphing into a privately run, community based model.

With the support of a Democratic governor, private developers are lining up to turn the place into a “destination theme park” or “multiuse campus”.But the current North Carolina legislature is on a privatization binge that goes far beyond outsourcing its mental health services. Here as elsewhere, corporate lobbyists have gained traction in their efforts to brand most state-run services as monopolistic, overly complex and arcane.

Case in point: the state legislature’s latest exercise in privatizing health care for prisoners. Under this scheme the state would contract with contractors, who would in turn contract with subcontractors, who would in turn contract with drug companies and vendors right down to latex gloves and potted ferns. Taken as is, this plan will have more layers than a Kim Kardashian wedding cake.

Yet it’s catching on.

But wacky as unbridled privatization may be, North Carolina is hardly alone in the rush toward government-as-business. State after state is privatizing Medicaid by transferring federal dollars to corporate providers. In Chris Christie’s New Jersey alone, business lobbies have the legislature looking at privatizing everything from state parks to water to college custodial staff. But given that Gov. Bev Perdue (D) is standing for reelection – and trailing her pro-privatization Republican challenger by 10 points – she has even less political impetus to buck the for-profit zeitgeist she helped create. No matter who wins the race, it’s hard to imagine anything other than an ongoing transfer of public infrastructure to private entities. A whole new breed of carpetbagger has taken up residence in North Carolina. Most likely, this one’s come to stay.

Rev. Don Rollins is Interim Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, N.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2011

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