Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics - Page 2 of 23

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.

Legislation introduced in Senate would tighten protections against AOBs

Legislation sought by regulators, insurance, and business interests to reform assignment of benefits agreements finally dropped Friday — and the first thing it would do is bar attorney fee awards to contractors who use those contracts to sue insurers.

“Nothwithstanding any other law, as to suits based on claims arising under property insurance policies, attorney fees may not be awarded … in favor of any person or entity seeking relief against the insurer pursuant to an assignment agreement,” the bill says.

The provision in SB 1038, by Dorothy Hukill and Kathleen Passidomo, would deliver a top priority for Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier and the insurance and business lobbies.

They blame litigation arising from AOB agreements for rising property insurance premiums, alleging abuse by unscrupulous contractors.

The measure also contains provisions shielding policyholders from abuse. For example, they could rescind any such agreement within seven days and would be shielded from liens by contractors seeking the difference between what the insurer pays and the cost of repairs.

Officials at the insurance office did not reply to a request for comment.

“OIR is leading the effort on the AOB legislation,” said Michael Peltier, spokesman for Citizens Property Insurance Corp. “We have been working closely with OIR and other stakeholders to put together a proposal we believe will meaningfully benefit consumers.”

Contractors have argued that they need AOBs to ensure they are paid.

And Jee Jacobson, vice chairman of the Florida Justice Association Property Insurance Committee, said in a written statement that the bill would burden policyholders.

“This irresponsible legislation picks insurance companies as winners and makes homeowners losers. It is the insurance industry’s wish list,” he said.

“Under this legislation, homeowners in desperate need of emergency repairs would have to either provide large amounts of cash up front, or face having liens placed on their property,” he said. “That is because contractors making emergency home repairs will no longer agree to deal directly with the homeowners’ insurance company for payment.”

The bill would require that policyholders be given a copy of any AOB agreement. It gives contractors three days to deliver copies to the insurance companies, and requires them to submit written, itemized cost estimates.

Contractors would be barred from charging cancellation fees or other administration fees.

Before a contractor could sue, he or she would have to submit to a deposition under oath about the work done, the costs, and the details of the AOB agreement. They could be forced into arbitration.

“Notwithstanding any other law, the acceptance by a person of any assignment agreement constitutes a waiver by the assignee or transferee … of any and all claims against all named insureds for payment arising from the specified loss,” the bill says.

“Except that all named insureds remain responsible for the payment of any deductible amount provided for by the terms of the insurance policy and for the cost of any betterment ordered by all named insureds.”

The provisions would not apply when a policyholder assigns insurance rights to someone who buys the property — or to management companies, family members, or guardians empowered to act on the policyholder’s behalf.

Trial attorneys support “efforts to curb problems with water mediation and other issues with first-party insurance,” but “taking away people’s property rights is not the answer to this problem,” Jacobson said.

“The solution is simple: Good contractors should be able to require Insurance companies to keep their word to their customers and stop denying and underpaying legitimate claims – and if they don’t, the homeowner shouldn’t have to be burdened with liens and lawsuits.”

Marion Hammer sees paths around 11th Circuit’s ‘Docs v. Glocks’ ruling

Gun-rights lobbyist Marion Hammer has denounced the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ “Docs v. Glocks” ruling as “activist,” and complained the court “treats gun owners as second-class citizens.”

“This activist decision attempts to use the First Amendment as a sword to terrorize the Second Amendment and completely disregards the rights and the will of the elected representatives of the people of Florida,” Hammer said.

“This is not necessarily the final word on these important issues, as the state of Florida has both legislative and appellate options to reinstate these important protections.”

Hammer released her reaction in an emailed statement Friday.

On the plus side, the federal appeals court on Thursday upheld a provision “prohibiting doctors from discriminating against gun owners,” Hammer said.

“Further, the court left intact the provision making it clear that patients have an absolute right to refuse to answer doctors’ questions about gun ownership. I’m sure anti-gun doctors are not happy about that.”

She described the law as “sensible and appropriate regulation of the medical profession that sought to protect gun owners from political harassment, and the medically irrelevant questioning and record-keeping about patients who are gun owners.”

She insisted: “The Legislature has every right to regulate any profession to protect the public from discrimination and abuse. Doctors are businessmen, not gods.”

The law, enacted in 2011, sought to prevent doctors from asking patients whether they own guns, on pain of professional discipline including possible loss of their licenses to practice.

Lobbyist’s blog post gets tongues flapping among Tallahassee’s lobbyist set

Who is Mary Beth Wilson?

That question buzzed around the lobbying shops on or near Tallahassee’s Adams Street after a blog post by a widely respected lobbyist accused a lobbyist for Demotech Inc. of posing as that “concerned citizen” to praise the ratings agency during a conference call.

The post said “most industry professionals” believe the caller was Lisa Miller, of Lisa Miller & Associates, who flatly denied it.

“No,” Miller said when asked whether she had done it. “I did not make that call.”

“Let me assure you that if this occurred, no one at Demotech coordinated it or scripted it,” Demotech president Joe Petrelli said by email.

Did Demotech organize any such thing?

“No,” Petrelli said. “We held a teleconference to explain our press release and take questions because we are transparent.”

Jeff Grady, president and CEO of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, posted the blog (password protected) on Wednesday.

In it, he described Demotech as “practically the only ratings agency that matters to many insurers and banks that fuel residential real estate lending in our state.”

But he added that problems attending a recent conference call to discuss the prospect that the agency would downgrade some Florida insurers demonstrated that “Demotech isn’t quite ready for the big leagues.”

One reason was a comment by that concerned citizen, who identified herself as “Mary Beth Wilson” on the call, and praised Demotech and Petrelli.

“Although no official record of the call is available, it is practically undeniable that Mary Beth Wilson is not who she said she was,” Grady wrote.

“Most industry professionals believe her to be the paid, outside lobbyist for Demotech. You just can’t make this stuff up!”

He didn’t name Miller, but included a link to her lobbyist registration page, which identifies her as representing Demotech, among other clients.

“It’s important to note that Demotech does play a critical role in Florida’s residential property market; we would hardly have one if it did not exist,” Grady wrote.

“But if Demotech ever wants its company name to be uttered in the same breath as A.M. Best, it needs to conduct its business in a more professional and predictable manner. It shouldn’t need to hire someone to tell others how good the company is; its work product should say it all.”

Reached for comment, Grady said he’s known Miller for 15 years. “I know what she sounds like over the phone. There’s no mistaking who that was,” he said.

He conferred with “four or five” others who were on the call.

“Before I could ask about it, they were laughing — they knew who Mary Beth Wilson was. It was funny, but not so funny,” Grady said.

Demotech is “a pretty critical component of our real estate lending market,” he said. “To have someone who’s a paid representative kind of feign some comments on the call — why not just identify yourself?”

Grady knew the post would stir the pot. “I figured it might, but it couldn’t go without saying.”

Lobbyists — many of whom have bumped elbows with Miller in the past — were astonished at the alleged subterfuge, coming while the Legislature considers assignment of benefits reforms targeting fraud.

“It completely undermines the AOB piece,” one lobbyist said. “It finally starts gaining traction and here you’ve undermined it by doing something like that.”

House and Senate leaders reached for comment haven’t responded yet.

Demotech hadn’t posted a recording of the conference call as of Thursday afternoon.

“We are assessing the quality of the recordings and may post them to our site at a later date,” Petrelli said. “If we do so, we will issue a release indicating audio is available.”

Do you plan to take any action in response to the assertion?

“At this time, we do not plan to take action in response to the unverified assertion,” he said.

Supreme Court limits information insurers may demand under PIP policies

The Florida Supreme Court has taken a narrow view of the amount of evidence hospitals and other health care providers are obliged to turn over to insurance companies concerning the reasonableness of personal injury protection claims.

In a unanimous ruling, the court sided with the 1st District Court of Appeal over the 4th District Court of Appeal, which had issued conflicting interpretations of Florida’s PIP statute.

“We conclude that discovery is limited to the production of a written report of the history, condition, treatment, dates, and costs of such treatment of the injured person and why the items identified by the insurer were reasonable in amount and medically necessary, together with a sworn statement, as well as the production, inspection and copying of records regarding such history, condition, treatment, dates, and costs of treatment,” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga wrote.

“Furthermore, we agree that (the statute) provides limited pre-litigation discovery into specified information about the treatment and charges for treatment provided to an injured party, and that the discovery tools found in the rules of civil procedure … are not triggered until litigation over the reasonableness of those charges has ensued.”

Justice C. Alan Lawson, who only recently joined the court, did not participate.

The dispute in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Shands Jacksonville Medical Center Inc. centered on the insurer’s attempt to collect information about the treatment afforded 29 insured following auto accidents.

Florida’s PIP statute allows insurers “discovery of fact” — meaning access to provider records to determine whether the treatment was reasonable.

Shands delivered medical records, documents detailing treatments and charges, its Medicare cost report, and data reflecting what other hospitals charged for the same procedures.

Shands refused to turn over copies of third-party documents covering discounts it had negotiated with other carriers. State Farm sued for those records. A trial judge ruled that the company was entitled to them.

The 1st DCA and the 4th DCA, in a similar dispute, disagreed about the amount of information Shands was obliged to turn over. The first court took a narrow view, holding that State Farm was entitled only to records spelled out in subsection 6 (a) — essentially, the information Shands had delivered.

The latter court took a more expansive view, ruling that the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure’s broader discovery rules applied.

The Supreme Court agreed with the 1st DCA that the Legislature intended the statute to afford a “limited pre-litigation procedure for a PIP insurer to obtain specified information about the treatment provided to its insured and the charges for that treatment.”

Appeals court reverses ruling striking limits on PIP payments to chiropractors

A state appeals court has upheld a law limiting payments to chiropractors under reforms to Florida’s personal-injury protection insurance system the Legislature approved in 2012.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal on Wednesday reversed a ruling by Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Michaelle Gonzalez-Paulson holding that the limits were unconstitutional.

“We must presume that the Legislature conducted its own evaluation of the respective professionals’ qualifications,” the appeals court wrote.

“When no suspect class or fundamental right is implicated, our inquiry is limited to whether the law bears a reasonable relationship to a legitimate governmental objective. Plainly, the reduction of fraud in order to lower the cost of insurance premiums is a valid governmental objective.”

The case is Garrido v. Progressive American Insurance Co.

Chiropractor Eduardo Garrido, armed with an assignment of benefits agreement signed by patient injured in an accident, challenged the law’s exclusion of chiropractors from the list of medical professionals qualified to diagnose an emergency medical condition.

The law allows only a licensed doctor, osteopath, dentist, or physician’s assistant to render that diagnosis, which would have qualified Garrido to bill for up to $10,000 under his patient’s PIP coverage.

Since Garrido was not authorized to make the diagnosis, the company paid him only $2,500 against his $6,075 bill.

Gonzalez-Paulson concluded the limit was unconstitutional on equal-protection and due-process grounds.

The appeal court, in a unanimous ruling by Chief Judge Richard Suarez, cited “a strong presumption of validity if there is a rational relationship between the disparity of treatment of those persons or groups and a legitimate governmental objective.”

In this case, the court said, that was “to reduce fraud in order to lower the cost of insurance premiums.”

The separation-of-powers doctrine obliges courts to defer to reasonable legislative decisions, the court continued.

“Courts are required to give great deference to legislative policy choices, and it constitutes reversible error for a trial court to subject legislative fact-finding to courtroom fact-finding standards,” the court said.

“In this vein, and recognizing the hallmark constitutional principle of separation of powers, even laws that a judge perceives ‘as unwise or unfair’ pass constitutional muster under the rational-basis test.”

Senate may balk at Rick Scott’s plan to hit hospitals over charity care

Gov. Rick Scott‘s proposal to cut Medicaid reimbursement payments to profitable hospitals that stint on charity care may run into trouble in the Senate.

During hearings Wednesday before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, members including Chairwoman Anitere Flores raised objections.

“The governor’s office has made some assumptions, based on the fact that some hospitals are very profitable, that they can afford a cut,” Flores said following the meeting.

“I’m hearing very different things from our local hospitals,” she said. “I think you heard from other members that they have some concerns, as well.”

Scott’s $83.4 billion spending plan would save $298 million “by eliminating arbitrary and inconsistent supplemental payments for hospitals that provide less charity,” according to a summary available here (scroll down to page 27.)

Aides to the governor briefed committee members on his asks for the agencies for Health Care Administration and Persons with Disabilities; and the departments of Children and Families. Elder Affairs, Health, and Veterans’ Affairs.

Also Wednesday, the panel began hearing from advocates seeking state support for local projects. House Speaker Richard Corcoran started insisting on full hearings for member projects in the budget this year, but Flores said the Senate began such hearings last year.

Projects presented include programs for older Floridians, veterans, people suffering drug addiction and mental problems, and children.

For example, The Arc Nature Coast sought $425,000 to replaced a 58-year-old farm house with a new center to house and serve 75 former Sunland residents from Hernando and Pasco counties; and Tallahassee’s Apalachee Center sought $1 million to provide forensic mental health services people in eight counties, rather than send them to the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee.

Flores said the exercise was a way for programs to “make their case to the Legislature.”

Lawyers for the state tell Senate committee they need pay raises, too

State attorneys and public defenders face off in court, but they agreed on one thing during a meeting Wednesday of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice: Their staff attorneys need pay raises.

Trouble is, committee chairman Aaron Bean isn’t convinced there’ll be enough money to pay for that, as much as he sympathizes.

“The secret is that there’s just not going to be enough money to cover everybody’s requests,” Bean said following the hearing. “That’s why we triage.”

Representatives of an array of state agencies that field attorneys begged the panel for pay raises. Other than state attorneys and public defenders, the commitee heard from regional conflict counsel, the statewide guardian ad litem office, and capital collateral representative offices.

Additional public-safety agencies also requested increases, including higher salaries. This document outlines their presentations to the committee.

Gov. Rick Scott‘s proposed $83.5 million state budget would add resources for public-safety agencies — particularly the Department of Corrections. They include $38.7 million to pay corrections and probation officers more; $4.9 million for hiring bonuses in high-vacancy institutions; and a $2.5 million base-pay bump for corrections officers in mental health units.

Scott envisions no pay raises for other state workers, however, other than a potential to earn bonuses of up to $1,500.

Stacy Scott, public defender for the 8th Circuit in Gainesville, and who argued that public defenders are underpaid compared to prosecutors, insisted it makes sense to invest in trial attorneys.

“Public defenders handle cases at much less expense than if you have to pay a private lawyer to represent indigent people who have a right to a lawyer,” Scott said.

Bill Cervone, Scott’s counterpart in the Gainesville state attorney office, held out hope for pay raises.

“We keep hearing that (Senate budget chief Jack) Latvala‘s pushing it and (Senate President Joe) Negron‘s on board with Latvala,” Cervone said.

Bean said that, notwithstanding disagreements between the House and Senate in other areas, the two chambers agree on the need to bolster public-safety agencies.

“There’s plenty of conflicts elsewhere, but in this area we cant to honor our public servants in these critical areas,” Bean said.

“We want to keep the bad guys locked up. We want to keep our record (low) crime rate on that decline. How do we get there is just fine-tune details. I’ve already met with my (House) counterpart, and I feel good.”

Rick Scott’s budget would raid affordable housing trust funds

Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed budget would shift nearly 77 percent of the $293.4 million earmarked for low-income housing next year to other state priorities.

That works out to $224 million from state and local housing trust funds that won’t go for their intended purpose.

State law reserves a portion of the take from documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions for low-income housing.

The trust fund total is an estimate reached by state economists in December, and could vary depending on the housing market.

“The governor has not been supportive of local and state trust funds in any of his budgets,” said Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition and facilitator for the Sadowski Coalition, comprising an array of housing advocacy organizations.

“We would like all the money to be used for housing,” she said.

Last year, Scott wanted to sweep $237.5 million from the trust funds, of the nearly $276.6 million then available. The Legislature pared back his request, providing around $200 million for housing.

It’s not unusual for state leaders to sweep money from trust funds if they think the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Still, the practice galls some legislators. During a meeting last week of the House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee, members complained about raids on housing and other trust funds.

The local housing trust fund provides down payments for first-time homebuyers; pays for repairs for low-income homeowners; repairs damage following natural disasters; and builds rental housing, according to housing advocate Mark Hendrickson.

The state program finances construction or rehabilitation of rental housing.

Jim Boyd calls Rick Scott’s $618 million in tax cuts ‘a little bit ambitious’

Gov. Rick Scott may be overreaching with his plan to cut state taxes by $618.4 million, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee said Tuesday.

“I would consider it a little bit ambitious, in light of our current financial situation,” chairman Jim Boyd told reporters after Scott’s aides briefed his committee.

“We certainly share the goal of trying to cut as much as we can in taxes and keep the money in the taxpayers’ pockets,” the Bradenton Republican said.

“Six hundred million dollars is pretty strong,” he said. “I’d love for his number to be correct, because that means we’re in better shape than we think we are in terms of the money that’s be available to us.”

Scott’s $83.5 billion proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 includes a raft of tax cuts, including a 1.5 percent decrease in the levy on commercial rents; and an increase in the corporate income tax exemption from the existing $50,000 to $75,000.

It also includes sales tax holidays on college and university schoolbooks, school book fairs, camping and fishing equipment, back-to-school supplies, hurricane preparedness equipment, and military veterans.

State economists have estimated that lawmakers will have nearly $142 million more than expected to spend in the fiscal year that begins next July 1.

House leaders, by contrast, assume revenues will be more or less flat, and have begun looking for spending cuts to cope with that and with projected deficits during the two subsequent years.

Several members queried Christian Weiss, a Scott budget aide who briefed the committee, about the governor’s plan to leave local school tax rates alone, to capture increased property values into the classroom. House leaders want to reduce the rate, creating a tax cut.

“That’s our position,” Boyd said. “I don’t believe that would change. That’s a fairly decent difference from the outset.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, Weiss reassured Democratic members that the commercial rent tax cut would leave local government with enough money to enforce building codes.

Rep. Evan Jenne worried the corporate tax cut would exacerbate Florida’s wealth gap, which he called the fourth largest in the nation.

Weiss insisted the governor — who speaks often of growing up in a financially struggling family — believes the tax cut will create jobs. “So anybody can get a job and make a decent living.”

A House committee has voted to cut one Scott priority already — state financing for economic development programs including Enterprise Florida Inc. and Visit Florida, which House Speaker Richard Corcoran considers corporate welfare.

Boyd, who sits on EFI’s board, said he sides with his leadership.

“I support business growth in Florida, whether it’s organic or it’s new business. I know the speaker supports it as well. It’s just how do we get there.”

AIF workers’ comp fix would make employees pay their own attorney fees

Associated Industries of Florida released its fix for rising workers’ compensation rates Tuesday. The lobby’s proposed legislation would make injured employees responsible for their own attorney fees.

The draft bill stipulates that “a claimant is responsible for payment of her or his own attorney fees” for litigation arising from a claim.

“A judge of compensation claims may not award attorney fees payable by any carrier or employer,” the draft says. Compensation judges would have power to approve such fee agreements “as consistent with the Florida Bar’s rules of professional conduct.”

Additionally, “if any party should prevail in any proceedings before a judge or compensation claims or court, there shall be taxed against the nonprevailing party the reasonable costs of such proceedings, not to include attorney fees.”

“This legislation will allow Floridians to avoid unnecessary, costly and time consuming litigation and to get benefits into the hands of injured workers as soon as possible,” AIF president and CEO Tom Feeney said in a written statement.

The proposal is the product of a task force formed after the Office of Insurance Regulation approved a 14.5 percent increase in workers’ compensation insurance rates, effective beginning in December.

That increase is the subject of an appeal pending before the 1st District Court of Appeal. A Leon County trial judge ruled in December that the National Council on Compensation Insurance, or NCCI, violated the Sunshine Law by excluding the public from its internal deliberations over its rate proposal to the insurance office.

NCCI and much of the business community blame the increase on Supreme Court rulings striking down as unconstitutional caps on attorney fees in workers’ compensation litigation, and on permanent disability payments.

Bill Herrle, the National Federation of Independent Business’ Florida director and a member of the AIF task force, said the draft legislation is intended to answer the high court’s objection to the fee cap — which, the court said, limited workers’ right of access to the courts.

Business interests, by contrast, argue that liberal availability of fees for encourages attorneys to take weak claims to court, boosting workers’ compensation costs and driving up premiums.

“The worker is going to have an interest in seeing that they are getting a value from their attorney, for certain,” Herrle said.

The draft does not address other proposed fixes, including allowing insurers to compete on rates or freeing workers to take employers to court.

AIF has not yet lined up a sponsor.

In 2000 and 2002, before 2003 reforms limiting benefits and attorney fees, Florida posted the highest and second-highest workers’ compensation rates in the country.

BY 2010, following the reforms, Florida posted the 40th lowest workers’ compensation rates in the country.

Richard Chait, chairman of the workers’ compensation section of the Florida Justice Association, denounced the proposal, saying attorney fees are awarded only when insurers deny legitimate claims.

“The draft bill that AIF is proposing would have a devastating and chilling effect on Florida businesses and remove the only equalizer between the corporate insurance companies and injured workers,” Chait said in a written statement.

“Reforming the workers’ comp system in Florida requires taking a detailed look into the systematic process that insurance companies use to habitually deny injured workers the medical care and resulting benefits, which are appropriate,” Chait said.

This, in turn hurts, employers and the men and women who work for them by interfering with the provision of benefits legally due to those who suffer work-related injuries.”

 

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