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News Service Of Florida

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

Thad Altman draws GOP challenger for HD 52 seat

Longtime Republican lawmaker Thad Altman has drawn a primary challenger as he seeks re-election to the House next year. Melbourne Republican Matt Nye has opened a campaign account to challenge the Indialantic Republican in 2018 in Brevard County’s House District 52, according to the state Division of Elections website.

Altman was elected to the seat in 2016 after serving eight years in the Senate and an earlier five-year stint in the House.

Meanwhile, in South Florida, Ocean Ridge Democrat James Bonfiglio has become the fourth candidate to open a campaign account to try to succeed term-limited Rep. Bill Hager, a Delray Beach Republican, in Palm Beach County’s House District 89.

Bonfiglio joined fellow Democrat Ryan Rossi and Republicans Matt Spritz and Tommy Zeichman in planning to run for the seat next year.

Republished with the permission of the News Service of Florida.

Proposal seeks to ensure nursing home air conditioning

Amid continuing fallout from the deaths of residents of a Broward County nursing home after Hurricane Irma, a key state senator has filed a bill that would seek to prevent lengthy air conditioning outages at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Chairman Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, filed the measure (SB 372) Friday. It is the second Senate bill seeking to address the air conditioning issue, which has drawn national attention since the Sept. 13 deaths of eight residents of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. Four other residents subsequently died.

Hurricane Irma knocked out the nursing home’s air conditioning system on Sept. 10, leaving residents in the sweltering facility for three days.

Garcia’s bill, filed for the 2018 legislative session, would require nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have emergency power sources and fuel supplies that would last at least four days.

To meet that requirement, facilities could store generators and fuel supplies on-site or contract with companies that could provide them in a “timely” manner when requested. The bill also would require the Florida Public Service Commission to ensure that electric utilities prioritize restoration of electricity to medical facilities with 50 residents or more, including nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

Garcia filed the bill a week after nursing-home and assisted-living officials gathered in Tallahassee for a daylong “summit.” That event, which included a panel discussion with Garcia and two other lawmakers, was called after Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration issued emergency rules aimed at requiring facilities within 60 days to install generators that could power air conditioning systems.

Industry officials have argued that it is unrealistic to carry out the rules within the 60-day timeframe — and the emergency rules last week drew legal challenges by industry groups LeadingAge Florida, the Florida Assisted Living Association and Florida Argentum.

Administrative Law Judge G.W. Chisenhall consolidated the cases Monday and scheduled a hearing for Oct. 12 and Oct. 13.

Regardless of the emergency rules, Garcia made clear during the industry summit that he expects lawmakers to address the air conditioning issue during the 2018 session, which starts in January

“The reality is we had one bad actor, and we just can’t allow that to happen again,” Garcia said. “Whatever the facts will come out … we just can’t wait for this investigation to go forward and do nothing. It’s going to happen. We’re going to move forward with some legislation in the state of Florida having to do with generators and alternative power. It just needs to happen.”

The Scott administration has stood behind the emergency rules. But in announcing the rules, it also said Scott will “aggressively fight for legislation to put this (generator) requirement into law in the 2018 legislative session.”

Justin Senior, secretary of the state Agency for Health Care Administration, has indicated facilities would not have to install generators that could cool entire buildings. He said they could comply with the rules by being able to cool portions of the buildings where residents could congregate for 96 hours.

Garcia’s proposal also adopts that approach, saying emergency power sources would need to be adequate to maintain a temperature of 81 degrees or cooler “within one or more areas of the facility having enough space to safely hold all of the facility’s residents.”

The deaths at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills also led to debate about whether the facility should have been a priority for Florida Power & Light to restore power. The Garcia bill would seek to ensure that such facilities are prioritized in the future.

In the more-immediate aftermath of the Broward deaths, Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, filed a bill (SB 284) last month that calls for nursing home and assisted-living facilities to have generators that could supply power for at least five days.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Enterprise Florida could give employee pay raises

Pay raises may be in store for some employees at the state’s business-recruitment agency as bonuses have been withheld this year.

Enterprise Florida President and CEO Pete Antonacci advised members of the agency’s Finance and Compensation Committee Friday of recommended increases as a way to keep employee salaries competitive with the private market.

“Salary adjustments were recommended for retention and marketplace competition purposes,” Enterprise Florida spokesman Nathan Edwards said in an email.

Details of Antonacci’s proposal were not immediately available. The proposal must still go before Enterprise Florida’s Executive Board, which has not set a date for its next meeting. Antonacci, a former general counsel to Gov. Rick Scott, previously recommended against using a bonus program that was approved under his predecessor.

In August, Scott sent a letter to the members of the boards of directors at Enterprise Florida and VISIT FLORIDA outlining his opposition to employee bonuses at both agencies.

“Employees are the key to success in any organization,” Scott, who serves as chairman of Enterprise Florida board, said in the letter. “But, after a long legislative session where the spending at these organizations was greatly debated, I do not believe that employee compensation should include bonuses at this time.”

Instead, Scott advised the agencies to review employee pay “to ensure that everyone is being compensated fairly relying on salaries rather than bonuses.”

Last October, Enterprise Florida handed out $448,662 in performance pay to 57 employees. A similar arrangement had been set up for the current year, before Antonacci joined the agency in early August.

VISIT FLORIDA, which gave out $440,915 in bonuses to 119 employees in May, has announced it has ended the performance reward program.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Insurance chief pushes patient billing change

Nothing is going to slow down Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier from asking the Florida Legislature to prevent insured patients from being hit with high out-of-pocket costs for emergency medical transportation.

Not even pending recommendations from Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate Sha’Ron James, who a year ago assembled a working group on emergency medical transportation to study the problem and recommend solutions.

Altmaier this week shepherded through the Florida Health Insurance Advisory Board a recommendation to ban what is known as “balance billing” for emergency medical transportation, despite concerns from several board members. Altmaier chairs the advisory board, with seven of the board members agreeing to approve the legislative recommendation.

Four board members who had concerns about approving the recommendation were advised that they could abstain from voting instead of opposing the measure.

“I think the reason a special work group was put together to look at this is because it is a complex issue,” board member Molly McKinstry, a deputy secretary at the state Agency for Health Care Administration, said, referring to James’ group.

McKinstry stressed that she’s not opposed to the concept of balance-billing protections but said that it would be “premature” to vote on the Altmaier-backed recommendation without hearing from James’ panel first.

The Florida Health Insurance Advisory Board is a panel charged with making recommendations to the Legislature on how to improve the state’s health insurance market.

The balance-billing ban is the only legislative recommendation approved by the board for the 2018 session, which starts in January. But it’s a recommendation that could help give Altmaier’s boss – Gov. Rick Scott – a consumer-friendly health-care issue to use if he campaigns against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson next year.

Advisory board member and Florida Blue attorney Mark McGowan had concerns with the recommendation, but his problems were more substantive.

Lawmakers in 2016 approved a balance-billing law that prohibits out-of-network providers from balance billing customers of preferred-provider organizations (PPOs) or exclusive-provider organization (EPOs) for emergency services or for nonemergency services when the nonemergency services are provided in a network hospital and the patient had no ability and opportunity to choose a network provider.

The law also establishes standards for determining reimbursement to the providers and authorizes providers and insurers to settle disputed claims under a dispute-resolution program.

That situation isn’t ideal in a town where there only is one emergency air-transportation provider, McGowan said. He expressed concern that, in attempting to fix the problem of insured customers getting hit with high bills, the state could create a situation that essentially forces insurance companies to pay whatever providers bill.

“There needs to be some sort of customary and usual charges figured out,” he said.

When McGowan asked if the advisory board would have an opportunity to revisit the issue after the vote, Altmaier suggested that the chances were slim. He said he wanted to have the recommendations finalized and in the hands of lawmakers when they hold their first round of interim committee meetings in October.

James told The News Service of Florida on Friday that she created her working group in October 2016 and planned to wrap up its meetings by October 2017. Her office would then spend the rest of the year analyzing data it had been given and listening to the testimony that was presented before finalizing recommendations by the end of the year.

“There’s no question there should be protections, the challenge is how they are applied,” she said.

James said it was appropriate for Altmaier, the top insurance regulator, to be aggressive on the issue and didn’t fault him for making the recommendation without her group’s work.

But Jeff See, who serves on James’ working group, disagrees.

“Any separate legislative recommendation in advance of the forthcoming plan from the working group is preemptive and sidesteps the group’s work over the past year to ensure fair coverage for beneficiaries who find themselves in dire circumstances in unforeseen emergencies,” he said in an email to the News Service.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

State to miss deadline for marijuana licenses

Health officials won’t be able to meet a legislatively mandated Tuesday deadline to hand out five new medical-marijuana licenses, the head of the state’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use said Friday.

Christian Bax, the marijuana office’s executive director, blamed the delay on Hurricane Irma and a pending challenge to a recently passed law that ordered the Department of Health to expand the number of medical marijuana licenses.

The law, passed during a June special session, was designed to carry out a November constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana in Florida. A key part of the law was increasing the number of operators in what could turn into a highly lucrative industry.

The law called for an overall increase of 10 licenses, some of which have already been awarded, by Oct. 3. It also specified that one license go to a black farmer who had been part of settled lawsuits about discrimination by the federal government against black farmers.

A lawsuit filed this month challenges the constitutionality of that part of the law, alleging that the statute is so narrowly drawn that only a handful of black farmers could qualify for the license. The lawsuit, filed by Panama City farmer Columbus Smith, contends that the measure is what is known as an unconstitutional “special law.”

In a letter to legislative leaders signed Friday, Bax wrote that his office has “worked diligently to implement” the new law, but that the issuance of five new medical marijuana licenses by Tuesday posed an “extraordinarily challenging deadline.”

In addition, response and recovery efforts related to Hurricane Irma “necessitated the mobilization of all available department assets for nearly two weeks,” Bax wrote.

Bax also blamed his office’s inability to meet the deadline on Smith’s lawsuit.

“The OMMU (Office of Medical Marijuana Use) is aware of its important role in continuing to move this process forward to provide patient access as quickly and safely as possible. However, recent history has emphasized the importance of getting the MMTC (medical marijuana treatment center) licensure process right the first time,” he wrote.

Marijuana industry insiders have long believed that the agency would not meet the deadline, but Bax’s Friday letter informing lawmakers of the delay made it official. As late as last week, a Department of Health spokeswoman said that the deadline remained “the goal.”

The evolution of the medical-marijuana industry in Florida has been fraught with legal and administrative challenges since its inception after a 2014 law legalized low-THC treatments for a limited number of patients.

Bax pointed out that 13 administrative challenges were filed after the agency issued the first medical-marijuana licenses in 2015. The agency is still in litigation over two of the challenges, he said.

The upcoming licenses will be the first time the state has opened the application process to businesses that did not participate in the first selection process in 2015, creating intense interest in what could be one of the biggest medical-marijuana markets in the nation.

Bax’s office developed a new system to evaluate the applications, relying on an outside vendor to supply “subject matter experts” to use a “blind-testing” process to grade the submissions. Requests for quotations from potential contractors were due a week ago — just seven days before Tuesday’s deadline.

State Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who has been instrumental in the development and passage of the state’s medical marijuana laws, praised Bax’s office for the revised selection system but called the delay a letdown.

“I’m pleased with the rule that set up the process for reviewing and approving applications. It’s a much better process than the low-THC process, and I think it will produce better results,” he told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Friday. “I’m disappointed that they didn’t complete their work in a timely manner with regard to the approval of the five licenses that are subject to competitive applications. They need to finish their work by the end of the year and before session starts (in January).”

Still, Bradley said: “I’d rather have them right than do it quick.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Hurricane Irma claims near $4.2 billion

Property-insurance claims from Hurricane Irma have approached $4.2 billion in estimated losses, according to the latest numbers from the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.

As of Thursday, 644,908 claims, totaling $4,182,798,217 in insured losses, had been filed from the deadly storm that pounded the state Sept. 10 and Sept. 11.

As examples of the nearly statewide impact of Irma, 77,132 claims had been filed in Miami-Dade County, 53,799 claims had been filed in Orange County, 43,017 claims had been filed in Collier County, and 27,394 claims had been filed in Duval County.

Even in Leon County, home to Tallahassee, there had been 916 claims. Monroe County, where the storm first made landfall, had 21,702 claims filed as of Thursday.

Other counties with large numbers of claims included Broward, 51,242; Lee, 48,146; Polk, 40,444; Brevard, 29,876; Palm Beach, 25,335; and Osceola, 21,386. The Office of Insurance Regulation website does not break down the numbers by insurer.

On Wednesday, state-backed Citizens Property Insurance said more than 45,600 claims had been filed by its policyholders.

The company estimated that the overall total of claims will reach $1.23 billion, with another 15,000 claims expected to be filed within the next two years.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Longtime AHCA general counsel exits

After more than five years heading the Agency for Health Care Administration’s legal office, Stuart “Stu” Williams has resigned to take a position as vice president for corporate development for Liberty Dental Plan of California.

Bill Roberts, who has been serving as AHCA’s deputy general counsel, was introduced this week as interim general counsel at an agency meeting in Tallahassee.

Williams’ resignation was effective Aug. 13. Williams served as AHCA’s general counsel for five years and five months.

“It’s not a surprise I left. It’s a surprise I stuck around as long as I did,” he told the News Service on Thursday.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.


Bill Nelson, Marco Rubio call for military help in Puerto Rico

Florida’s U.S. senators are calling for the “cavalry” – in the form of the U.S. military – to help in Puerto Rico, which was hammered last week by Hurricane Maria.

“There is a crisis in Puerto Rico where food, fuel, water and medicine is sitting at the docks and not getting out to the remote parts of the island,” Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said in a prepared statement Thursday. “The situation calls for an immediate response by the U.S. military to provide security and distribution to these remote areas. As was said after Hurricane Andrew: `Where the hell is the cavalry?’”

Earlier in the day, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted: “Conditions in parts of  #PuertoRico getting worse. The main problem is a logistical one, the distribution of aid beyond #SanJuan. Likely need the @DeptofDefense to address some `battlefield’ like logistical challenges in #PuertoRico. This will NOT improve on its own.”

On Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott traveled to San Juan to provide assistance. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump temporarily lifted a century-old law – known as the Jones Act – that requires cargo between U.S. ports to be carried on American-flagged ships.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

DEP seeks $50M for Florida Forever

A request is on the desk of Gov. Rick Scott to replenish the state’s most prominent land-preservation fund.

The Department of Environmental Protection‘s wish list for the 2018-2019 fiscal year—presented to Scott last week as the governor’s office crafts budget recommendations for the Legislature—includes $50 million for the Florida Forever program.

“It’s a bigger number, it’s a different focus than what we’ve had from DEP for six or seven years,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida and a prominent environmental lobbyist.

The department’s proposals also include $50 million for programs to improve water quality and drinking water quantity. Another $50 million would go to support state parks.

Department spokeswoman Lauren Engel said the Florida Forever funding is expected to help the state “acquire rare and sensitive lands that will benefit our communities and environment.”

“We are proud of our recent successful acquisitions, including the Blue Spring and Horn Spring parcels, among others,” Engel said, referring to deals in Gilchrist County and in Leon and Jefferson counties.

Engel also noted that the proposed amount for water projects typically will go up as legislators pitch individual projects.

Already Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has filed a measure for 2018 (SB 204) that would lead to the state spending at least $75 million a year on springs projects and $50 million annually on projects related to the restoration of the St. Johns River and its tributaries or the Keystone Heights Lake Region.

Scott will recommend his proposed 2018-2019 budget later this year, with the 60-day regular session beginning in January. His office hasn’t given a date for the budget release.

Environmentalists called the proposed Florida Forever funding a “welcome sign” the state agency has a renewed commitment to buying important conservation lands.

But they would like to see a more long-term commitment from lawmakers under a 2014 voter-approved constitutional amendment that requires setting aside a portion of documentary-stamp taxes for land and water conservation. Environmental groups contend that lawmakers have improperly used part of the money for staff salaries and agency expenses rather than conservation, a contention that Republican legislative leaders dispute.

“It is good to see DEP step back into an advocacy role when it comes to Florida Forever. But $50 million isn’t nearly what voters expected when they approved the Water and Land Conservation Amendment in 2014,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters. “I hope the governor and Legislature take this recommendation as a starting point and commit to a comprehensive and dedicated funding stream for the remainder of the amendment.”

Florida Forever in the past offered up to $300 million annually for land preservation but has been scaled back in recent years.

Initially, that occurred during the recession. Later, as the economy recovered and without renewed funding from the Legislature, Scott and the Cabinet opted more often to use a preservation method, known as acquiring conservation easements, preferred by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Under conservation easements, land is protected from development, but farmers and ranchers typically can continue to use the property. Putnam has backed using the state’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program in acquiring easements.

While the 2014 conservation ballot initiative was successful, some influential legislators continue to question the need for Florida to acquire more land, noting struggles to manage the property already in the state’s inventory.

However, in the past year, Scott and the Cabinet have started to dip into money that has sat for years in the Florida Forever program.

In June, $15 million was used to buy 407 acres in Gilchrist County, preserving a cluster of natural springs, and to protect 6,071 acres of agricultural land in Polk and Hardee counties.

The state also used Florida Forever for a $4.5 million purchase in March of more 465 acres to help protect Silver Springs in Marion County and a $16.1 million deal in October to acquire 11,027 acres of land known as the Horn Spring property in Leon and Jefferson counties.

About $60 million is currently in the fund, and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, appointed to the position May 23, has expressed a desire to continue using the money.

With Scott expected to run for U.S. Senate in 2018, Valenstein was an architect of Scott’s conservation platform during the 2014 gubernatorial election. The platform called for a 10-year, $1 billion environmental blueprint that lined up in places with the constitutional amendment approved that year.

Draper said conservationists have been lobbying Valenstein to increase funding levels for land maintenance and preservation.

The 2017-2018 state budget, crafted before Valenstein moved to the Department of Environmental Protection from the Suwannee River Water Management District, includes $10 million for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and nothing for Florida Forever.

©2017 The News Service of Florida. Reprinted with permission. 

Senate bill could curb stadium projects

Professional sports franchises would be prohibited from building or renovating stadiums on publicly owned land under a measure introduced Tuesday in the Florida Senate.

The proposal (SB 352) by Hialeah Republican Sen. Rene Garcia, is similar to legislation (HB 13) filed in the House by Hialeah Republican Rep. Bryan Avila. Both bills are filed for the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts in January.

During the 2017 Legislative Session, the House approved a similar proposal, while a Senate version failed to get through committees.

Avila has also filed a separate measure (HB 6005) for the 2018 Legislative Session that would repeal a controversial 2014 law that created a stadium-funding program. That program makes available a potential $13 million a year for stadium work.

But the House has prevented funding projects the past few years, even as the state Department of Economic Opportunity has approved applications submitted for EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Sun Life Stadium in Miami-Dade County, Daytona International Speedway, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and a soccer stadium in Orlando.

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