AUSTIN The healthcare provider for 78 percent of the state's prison population is on the verge of giving up its contract after the Texas Legislature cut prison medical care spending by about $100 million.

Officials of the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) had already argued the system was severely underfunded. Now, they say it's impossible to provide adequate services. Scott Medlock, director of the Prisoner's Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, says lawmakers took an easy - and shortsighted - path by trying to slash spending on prisoners.

"Prisoners are a convenient political punching bag. Of course constituents are going to be more upset about cutting funds for elementary schools, but the Constitution requires that we provide medical care to prisoners who are locked up."

He believes the chances are good the state will wind up in federal court for failing to provide adequate care to its 156,000 prisoners. It could be a rerun of court interventions seen in the 1970s and 1980s before UTMB signed on as primary provider.

While funding is the immediate sticking point, Medlock believes the real problem is Texas' approach to sentencing and parole. In his view, senselessly long incarcerations have led to a growing, aging prison population that is driving exploding health care costs.

"There are prisoners on dialysis, who've gone blind and lost a limb due to diabetes, who've been in prison for a long time. Guys who are very low-risk to release back into the community, where they can get care much cheaper."

If current negotiations between UTMB and the state don't result in an agreement, the Department of Criminal Justice may soon have to take over healthcare operations for the first time in 18 years. Other healthcare providers - both public and private - have expressed interest in the contract, although Medlock sees no way they could succeed with the current budget. He notes prison healthcare is a microcosm of the larger healthcare system, sharing many of the same pitfalls.

"We see prisoners whose treatment is delayed for weeks or months. There's not a lot of emphasis on preventative care or treating problems early, you know, before they come much more expensive."

For now, Texas Tech University is continuing to provide healthcare for the remaining prisoners, mostly in west Texas, not served by UTMB.