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Northeast hospital to remain in state hands

The Senate scrapped a controversial plan to privatize a state mental hospital in Baker County, handing a victory to workers and community leaders worried about a for-profit company running the facility.

During an all-day session, senators approved a budget amendment that eliminated a proposal to privatize the Northeast Florida State Hospital in the Baker County community of Macclenny.

The original version of the Senate budget called for contracting with a private company or a local government to run the facility --- though it left open the possibility that workers could form a non-profit firm to try to compete for the contract.

Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican whose sprawling rural district includes the 633-bed hospital, said the facility will face a 10 percent budget cut in exchange for the state continuing to run it.

Privatization opponents have feared, at least in part, that turning the hospital over to a contractor would lead to reduced employee benefits. Dean said the hospital has 1,186 employees, which makes it a huge part of the local economy.

Dean, who also has fended off past privatization attempts, asked other senators to "give my little hospital a chance.''