Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics - Page 2 of 17

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

House budget chairman starts looking for programs to cut

House Appropriations Committee Chair Carlos Trujillo promised Tuesday to get to work this year on attacking budget deficits that loom during the next two years.

Trujillo directed committee members to begin scrutinizing state spending and looking for programs to trim or cut.

At the same time, he reiterated the House leadership’s determination to look for tax cuts, including to local property taxes.

“The House is very interested in that,” he said of cutting local property taxes for schools, with the state providing money to keep schools operating. “It’ll be a real tax cut to all Floridian across the entire state.”

State government revenues are projected to remain essentially flat during the 2017-18 fiscal year, beginning July 1. But state economists project deficits of $1.3 billion the year after that, and of $1.9 billion during the subsequent year.

Trujillo’ counterpart in the Senate, Jack Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater, has said he favors letting school districts capture tax revenues derived not from increased rates but from rising property values — rather than using state money in a “buy back,” as the House proposes.

Both Trujillo and Latvala favored spending at least $300 million of the $400 million Florida expects to collect in Deepwater Horizon disaster damages in the counties most affected.

Trujillo, a Republican from Miami, said any policy differences with the Senate or Gov. Rick Scott would be subject to negotiations.

“At some point, there’s compromise in any negotiation,” Trujillo said. “I don’t think this will be any different.”

Of “member projects” — prizes legislators seek for local constituents — he said: “Every single one of those projects will be scrutinized. If there’s not a true state need, or if the money wasn’t properly used, or the money is kind of obsolete for state purposes, there’s no case to be made.”

Given what Donald Trump and congressional Republicans are saying as the Affordable Care Act, Trujillo is prepared for changes to Medicaid. “But it’s something that won’t affect this fiscal year,” he said — and maybe not even the 2018-19 fiscal year.

He expressed willingness to scrutinize tax cuts passed in recent years but didn’t envision raising taxes.

“We have a commitment to not raise taxes,” he said. “But, at the same time, as chairman of the committee, I think every member should have the right to express their concerns. Those concerns will be vetted with the committee, and the committee ultimately will make a determination.”

 

Contractors mount defense of assignment of benefits agreements

Home repair contractors lashed out against calls for a crackdown on assignment of benefits agreements during testimony before a key Senate committee Tuesday, insisting such contracts protect homeowners and reputable remediation businesses.

They argued instead for increased regulation of their industry, to put fly-by-night contractors out of business.

“Would you please regulate us?” said Dave DeBlander of ProClean Restoration and Cleaning in Pensacola.

“Regulate us like mold (remediation) is regulated. Get rid of those bad companies there in South Florida. Don’t ruin it for the whole state by messing with the AOB. The AOB protects the homeowner, and we can fix it just with that regulation.”

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation has declared assignment of benefits reform its No. 1 priority in the Legislature this year. Insurers including Citizens Property Insurance Corp. blame abuse of such agreements for escalating rates and litigation, especially in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties since 2012.

But during hearings Tuesday, the Banking and Insurance Committee heard from defenders of such agreements.

“AOBs protect us little guys — the David against the Goliath,” DeBlander said. Rather than take away the rights of homeowners who sign such contracts, which shift control of insurance claims from policyholders to contractors who undertake repairs, “their rights are enhanced,” DeBlander said.

“How is that homeowner going to explain to the insurance company why there’s five dehumidifiers in there, and why there’s 15 air movers,” he said. “Tear that away and the consumers on their own.”

He and other contractors blamed insurance companies for unduly delaying claims.

“They’re lying to contractors. They’re lying to homeowners. That’s what the AOB is for — to protect the homeowners and their contractors,” said Brian Christensen of Restoration 1 in Orlando.

Relying on insurance-company-preferred contractors is not the answer, he said.

“I go behind these preferred vendors all the time,” he said. “Something as simple as a couple of thousand-dollar water claim turns into a $10,000 to $20,000 mold claim because they didn’t do their job.”

AOB reforms did draw support from Cam Fentriss, legislative counsel to the Florida Roofing and Sheet Metal Contractors Association, including a ban on liens by contractors against policyholders who sign the contracts.

At one point, Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democratic trial lawyer from Broward County, launched a terse exchange with Citizens Insurance president and CEO Barry Galway over attorney costs associated with AOBs, during which Gilway interrupted the senator several times.

“Please do not interrupt me!” Farmer insisted.

Gilway said the defense costs amounted to $56 million during 2016 but that he did not know how much plaintiffs attorneys collected. “We do not have access to that information.”

“I’m sorry, but that’s just not accurate. You know what you are ordered to pay, or what you agreed to pay in settlements, to consumers’ lawyers. So you know that number. What it is?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but that is not correct. We do not know the amount of plaintiffs (attorney) costs included in a settlement.”

 

Survey finds dissatisfaction with Florida’s workers’ compensation system

How confident are stakeholders that Florida’s workers’ compensation system strikes the right balance between protecting injured workers while keeping costs under control?

Not very, according to a survey released this week by the Division of Workers’ Compensation.

Nearly 66 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that the system strikes the right balance. At nearly 40 percent, “strongly disagree” got more votes than any other category.

Nearly 18 percent agreed the balance was right, and a little more than 6 percent strongly agreed.

“The words ‘complex,’ ‘litigious,’ ‘outdated,’ and ‘overregulated’ were most often used in describing the system,” division assistant director Andrew Sabolic said.

Sabolic presented the findings Wednesday to the Three-Member Panel — its actual name — which sets reimbursement policies and payment levels for health care providers, pharmacists, and medical suppliers working with workers’ compensation claimants.

The findings recalled the Florida Supreme Court’s April ruling in Castellanos v. Next Door Co., in which the court complained “the workers’ compensation system has become increasingly complex to the detriment of the claimant, who depends on the assistance of a competent attorney to navigate the thicket.”

The court struck down limits on attorney fees in that ruling, one of two decisions blamed by many in the business community for a 14.5 percent in workers’ compensation premiums that began taking effect last month. The 1st District Court of appeal is weighing whether that increase was calculated in violation of Florida’s open-government laws.

The division surveyed 4,468 people on its electronic notification list, including representatives of carriers; attorneys for workers, employers, or carriers; and health care providers or facilities.

Only 447 responded, but Sabolic hopes for better results next time.

The findings are presented here (scroll down to Exhibit 1 on Page 18).

“Going forward, I think we’re going to periodically ask these same questions, so we have a benchmark to see how things change,” Sabolic said.

The survey presented a list of words and asked respondents to pick the one that best describes the workers’ compensation system. The top pick was “complex,” at 20.8 percent.

Next came “litigious” at about 20 percent; “outdated” at a shade over 19 percent; and “overregulated” at nearly 17.9 percent.

Only 5.3 percent thought the system “fair to all parties,” and 6.7 percent chose “self-executing.”

The system is designed to provide a self-executing way for injured workers to recover lost wages and health care costs, without the need for attorneys and lawsuits.

Under Florida law, workers give up their right to sue in court in exchange for assurances they’ll be taken care of.

“Of all the descriptor words you used in the survey, the one that is statutory is ‘self-executing,’ and only 6.7 percent of your respondents agreed with you that it was a self-executing system,” said Tamela Perdue, a senior vice president for Sunshine Health, who represents employers on the panel.

“I think that’s pretty telling about where the system is and where it’s supposed to be,” she said.

Asked whether “carriers and health care providers collaborate to provide the best medical care for injured workers,” 29.4 percent strongly disagreed; nearly 27.6 percent disagreed; 23.8 percent agreed; and 4.4 percent strongly agreed.

In other findings:

— 43.55 percent of respondents thought the system favored employers, and 27.4 percent workers.

— Nearly 47.5 percent thought indemnity benefits were about right; 36 percent too low; and 16.5 percent about right.

— 52.8 percent thought medical reimbursement payments were too low; 35.8 percent about right; and nearly 11.4 percent too high.

— Asked, “Is overutilization a major medical cost driver in Florida’s workers’ compensation system?” the largest group, at a little more than 27 percent, agreed; 13.4 percent strongly agreed; 24 percent disagreed; and 13.4 percent strongly disagreed.

— Just shy of 29 percent agreed that carriers timely authorize medical treatment.

The largest response was from health care providers, at 42.4 percent. Next was employers at 26.2 percent; carriers at 11.4 percent; employee attorneys at 7.4 percent; health care facilities at 2.2 percent; and attorneys for employers or carriers at 1.1 percent.

“Other” respondents accounted for 9.2 percent.

Bills would eliminate tobacco companies’ discounted appeals

The Florida Legislature could consider legislation that would make it more expensive for tobacco companies to appeal verdicts in liability cases filed by smokers made sick or injured by their products.

SB 100, filed by Sen. Greg Steube, contains just two lines:

“Section 569.23, Florida Statutes, is repealed.” And “This act shall take effect July 1, 2017.” An identical House companion was filed by state Rep. Danny Burgess (HB 6011).

That section, enacted in 2009, caps the amount tobacco companies must post when appealing trial court verdicts against them. Supporters argued at the time that the provision would protect the companies’ ability to make payments to the states under the massive 1999 liability verdict against them.

Steube is chairman and one of four members of the nine-member Judiciary Committee who won backing this year from the Florida Justice Association, which represents trial lawyers in the state.

He said he didn’t know what the financial implications of his proposal might be — but hopes to find out during committee hearings.

“I just don’t think there should be a specific exception basically giving cigarette companies the ability to delay litigation for as long as possible,” Steube said.

“There’s not another industry out there that has something like that. That’s something the Legislature has the right and the ability to look at.”

Donald Polmann makes his debut at Public Service Commission

Donald Polmann attended his first meeting as a member of the Public Service Commission Thursday, promising to seek a balance between sustaining Florida’s public utilities and the needs of their customers.

“I am truly grateful for the warm welcome that I’ve received from everyone here at the Public Service Commission,” Polmann said.

“I know that we have very important work to do, and I intend to make significant contributions with the benefit of my background, experience and expertise. My focus will be on service to Florida.”

Polmann said he hopes to help ensure “consistent, reliable service at a fair and reasonable cost” to customers, at rates that will allow utilities “to maintain as well as plan and grow for the future, in an effective and efficient manner.”

Gov. Rick Scott selected Polmann to replace former Commissioner Lisa Edgar, who decided not to apply for a fourth term. She has been named as the new chief of the Florida Parks Service.

Polmann is a registered professional engineer with three degrees, including a doctorate in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a senior manager at Atkins, a design and engineering firm that specializes in water projects.

His appointment, which must be confirmed by the Florida Senate, runs through Jan. 1, 2021.

Chairwoman Julie Imanuel Brown welcomed Polmann to the commission, telling him, “You have some big shoes to fill — not literally,” referring to Edgar.

During the next two years, Brown said, the commission plans an active agenda, including preparation for cybersecurity and natural disasters including hurricanes.

The agenda for Thursday, she said, contained “lighter issues, to help ease the transition to a new year.”

Items included minor rate hikes to finance well repairs and capital improvements at two small Pasco County water utilities; transfer of ownership of another small water utility in Lake County; and a territorial agreement switching 29 commercial and 102 residential customers in Hamilton County from Duke Energy Florida LLC to the Suwanee Valley Electric Cooperative.

The commission approved all of the items in under an hour.

Panel seeks changes to workers’ comp billing and new drug formulary

A state workers’ compensation advisory panel voted Wednesday to ask the Legislature to consider letting regulators establish a drug formulary in hopes of keeping medical costs under control.

The panel also recommended changes to the way Florida’s workers’ compensation system reimburses facilities that treat injured workers, and to tighten the guidelines for authorizing medical care.

Although formally named the Three-Member Panel, the group contains only two members at present — Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier and Tamela Perdue, a senior vice president for Sunshine Health, who represents employers. Gov. Rick Scott has not filled a vacant seat representing workers.

The panel sets reimbursement policies and payment levels for health care providers, pharmacists, and medical suppliers working with workers’ compensation claimants.

The panel will pass its recommendations along to the leaders of the House and Senate for adoption through legislation or — if lawmakers demur — possibly through regulations.

But the recommendations contemplate talks between all the parties to the workers’ compensation system in ironing out the details of any changes.

During the meeting in Tallahassee, Andrew Sabolic, assistant director of the state Division of Workers’ Compensation, said a review of workers’ complaints about the system revealed that nearly all had problems securing authorization for medical treatments.

“There are probably some behavior issues on both sides that need to be addressed,” he told the panel members.

“But, frankly, the division and maybe the Three-Member Panel have to recognize that this is the elephant in the room, possibly, that needs to be examined.”

Although Florida law sets guidelines for carriers to respond to requests for treatment, it doesn’t define “respond,” Sabolic said.

The panel adopted a recommendation to clarify the term, to improve consistency and streamline the process. Additionally, workers would have to wait 30 days to file formal petitions for benefits, to give carriers time to fully consider claims.

“We can do better. Providers can do better. Carriers can do better. They both can be held more accountable for their actions,” Sabolic said.

A number of states use drug formularies, according to a report prepared by the division. The idea is to control costs while also providing medical treatment.

The document noted increased use of compound drugs, mixed by pharmacists and not approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Florida sets maximum reimbursement allowances for hospital outpatient services and those performed in ambulatory surgical centers, and the process has helped to contain costs, the document says.

But those allowances don’t cover every procedure, and there’s no process in state law to figure out whether these outlier procedures are being billed appropriately. The panel voted to recommend the Legislature either tie these reimbursements to what Medicare pays, or else establish a procedure to allow providers to supply evidence establishing that their bills are reasonable.

Sol Epstein, representing the Florida Society of Ambulatory Surgical Centers, warned that might not be possible, since it’s illegal for centers like the ones he operates in South Florida to know what their competitors charge for procedures.

In any event, he said, outlier procedures tend to be covered under maximum reimbursement allowances as they become more common.

“Although it might sound easy and make some sense,” the proposals would represent a “massive change,” he said.

Employers Insurance Group retains Tallahassee lobbyist Donovan Brown

Donovan Brown has added Employers Insurance Group to his roster of lobbying clients.

Brown registered to represent Employers as of December. 6.

He canceled his registration to represent a dozen or so insurance and other clients when he left Colodny Fass during the summer to strike out on his own. He now operates GDB Group in Tallahassee.

His other clients include AmTrust Financial Services Inc., which sells property and casualty insurance to small businesses.

Employers specializes in workers’ compensation insurance, also to small businesses.

Brown is former state government relations counsel for Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Steven Geller leaves Greenspoon Marder, cites ethics requirement

Former state Sen. Steven Geller marked his election to the Broward County Commission in November by resigning from the Greenspoon Marder law firm and launching a solo legal and lobbying practice.

Geller had been warned that under the Florida Commission on Ethics’ interpretation of state law, his continued presence at Greenspoon could prevent any of the firm’s attorneys from appearing before the commission.

So he launched the Geller Law Firm and began reregistering for his lobbying clients to reflect his changed status. All but one of his clients have followed him to his new firm, he said.

“Most local governments interpret it differently,” Geller said in a telephone interview. “Most local governments believe that if you recuse yourself, you’ve resolved the conflict. The Ethics Commission feels differently.”

Florida Statutes 112.313(7)(a) says public officials can’t work for or maintain contractual relationships with any business or agency they regulate.

It also provides:

“Nor shall an officer or employee of an agency have or hold any employment or contractual relationship that will create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict between his or her private interests and the performance of his or her public duties or that would impede the full and faithful discharge of his or her public duties.”

The interpretation by the state’s ethics watchdog agency is to bar appearances by anyone affiliated with a professional firm before any public body, extending to anyone else affiliated with that firm.

“It’s concerned with what might happen — a temptation to dishonor,” agency spokeswoman Kerrie Stillman said. She pointed to some commission advisory opinions, including this one.

Recusal wouldn’t cure the conflict, she said — note that the statute seeks “the full and faithful discharge” of the official’s “public duties.”

In practice, Geller said, the provision is rarely enforced.

“I made the mistake of asking,” Geller said. “Never ask.”

Personnel note: Court clerks assuming duties early in three counties

Three recently elected county court clerks will get early jumps on their new jobs because of retirements by their predecessors.

Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday that he had appointed the new clerks to temporary terms lasting no more than a few days. Their elective terms begin Jan. 3

In Alachua County, J.K. “Jess” Irby will begin serving on Dec. 31, replacing J.K. “Buddy” Irby.

In Madison County, William “Billy” Washington takes over on Jan. 1 from Tim Sanders.

And in Volusia County, Laura Roth will replace Diane Matousek on Dec. 29.

Use of boat gets Orlando man arrested for workers’ comp fraud

An ill-advised boating excursion helped land an Orlando man behind bars for alleged workers’ compensation insurance fraud.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater on Friday announced the arrest of Ricardo Aponte in “an elaborate scam” involving a purported neck injury that prevented him from bending his body or working.

Aponte’s employer paid more than $500,000 in benefits since 2007, including a motorized wheelchair, before the insurance company got suspicious. The state Division of Investigative and Forensic Services, which Atwater oversees, began surveilling the man.

They observed as he moved about without the assistance of any medical device. On one occasion, they saw him cleaning his boat. On another, they saw him physically push the boat off its trailer and into the water.

He was charged with workers’ compensation fraud, making false statements in support of a claim, filing false and fraudulent insurance claims, and grand theft, Atwater said.

The charges are punishable by a full restitution order, a $10,000 fine and up to 30 years in prison.

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