The Florida House approved a workers’ compensation fix Tuesday intended to answer the Florida Supreme Court’s objections to the system by adding flexibility on attorney fees in benefits challenges, and by boosting benefits for injured workers.
Danny Burgess, whose Insurance & Banking Subcommittee pulled together the various interests in hours of hearings on the bill, conceded, “This product is not perfect.”
Still, it would close a “statutory gap” in disability benefits and extend them from the existing 104 to 260 weeks; require carriers to grant or deny benefits quickly; and ensure appointment of a worker representative to a state panel that sets medical reimbursement rates, he said.
“We are here to address very specific case law that has uprooted our system, and will continue to take a hatchet and cut off the legs of workers’ compensation in the state of Florida if we do not address the problem that is before us today,” Burgess said.
“The reality is, workers don’t care too much about workers’ compensation if they don’t have a job.”
Business and insurance interests began clamoring for legislation after the Office of Insurance Regulation approved a 14.5 percent increase in workers’ compensation premiums, effective beginning in December.
The office was responding to increased payouts blamed on Supreme Court rulings striking elements of the law as unconstitutional — including a statutory attorney-fee schedule tied to benefits won, but which the court said interfered with workers’ right of access to the courts.
On the House floor, critics argued the bill does too little for injured workers.
As Democrat Sean Shaw put it, the bill delivers “everything for the insurance companies, everything for the employers. The injured worker deserves something, and they’re not getting anything out of this bill.”
Republican Bill Hager, by contrast, called it “a balanced, well thought-out, consumer-oriented bill” that would increase benefits, conform with the high court rulings, and decrease rates.
The bill would allow departures from the attorney fee schedule, allowing judges of compensation claims to award as much as $150 per hour if he or she considers that justified. The Senate version of the bill sets the maximum at $250.
But the House measure could leave workers on the hook for their own attorney fees, rather than have insurers pay, if they pursue baseless claims.
The House language differs in other important ways from its Senate counterpart.
The Senate bill would require insurers to file their own rates, instead of jointly through the National Council on Compensation Insurance, or NCCI, as happens now.
Furthermore, carriers couldn’t include their defense costs when calculating rates under the Senate bill. The House would retain the NCCI joint ratings system, but allow deviations of no more than 5 percent up or down.
Separate legislation is pending in the House and Senate to shield information about claimants — to prevent trial attorneys from scouring the records to identify possible clients, Burgess said.
The House bill pegs payments to medical providers to Medicaid rates, rather than the existing per-charge system.