Hurricane Irma – Florida Politics

Rick Scott pressures lawmakers to OK citrus grant

Ahead of Thursday’s state Legislative Budget Commission meeting, Gov. Rick Scott is making it clear that he wants the panel to approve a $340 million federal block grant designed to help Florida citrus growers get back on their feet.

“I look forward to the legislature approving these important funds tomorrow so we can get this money to our growers,” Scott said in a statement released Wednesday. 

Sonny Perdue, U.S Secretary of Agriculture, announced the grant in May. Unlike other federal remedies made available to farmers across the country this year, the grant is exclusive to Florida growers. The money will be used to cover damages caused by Hurricane Irma, including the buying and replanting of trees, grove rehabilitation, and repairs to irrigation systems. 

While the state tentatively accepted the federal grant, the dollars require approval from the Legislative Budget Commission before dispersal.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam also expressed his support for the grant’s approval.

“Thanks to the hard work of so many, this much-needed piece of disaster assistance is finally on the way and will go a long way to help Florida’s citrus industry rebuild,” Putnam said. 

The sizeable grant, if approved on Thursday, will be a victory for Scott’s administration. The term-limited Republican governor cited a December meeting with Perdue on Thursday, during which he discussed “Florida’s iconic citrus industry.” The grant also appears to stem from Scott’s relationship with President Donald Trump. In announcing the grant in May, Perdue said he was instructed by Trump to work with Scott and Putnam to “put a process in place that will ensure the Florida citrus industry maintains its infrastructure and can continue to be the signature crop for the state.”

If approved, the news will be favorable to Florida growers, who this year experienced one of the worst citrus seasons in decades. They also await $2.36 billion worth of federal disaster-relief funding. The USDA plans to distribute that money through the 2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program. The program’s signup period began Monday and expires November 16.

Final forecast brings close to gloomy citrus season

The Florida citrus season is ending on a sour note, with growers on track to produce just under 45 million boxes of oranges.

The harvest numbers were posted to the United States Department of Agriculture’s website on Thursday, ending what’s come to be a tragic 2017-18 growing season.

Before Hurricane Irma’s landfall last September, Florida growers were on track to harvest 75 million boxes, according to private estimates. The final numbers reflect 30 million fewer boxes than those early estimates. Each box weighs 90 pounds.

The USDA released its first forecast for the past season in October as farmers and authorities were assessing the extent of the damage caused by the storm. The agency then estimated Florida growers would produce 54 million boxes of oranges, the most optimistic forecast of the season.

In November the USDA forecast dropped to 50 million boxes, and trended downward or remained the same each following month.

Meanwhile, authorities estimated the flooding and wind damage that came with Irma resulted in a $760 million blow to the industry. They described the storm’s path as one that could not have been “more lethal” to Florida citrus.

The latest numbers are a continuation from June and May forecasts, and mark only a slight dip from April. A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Citrus attributed July’s unchanged numbers to the fact that Florida growers likely wrapped up harvesting in June. 

“This brings a very difficult citrus season to a close,” Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, said in June. “We look forward to a quiet, resilient season in the fall.”

The state’s citrus industry also has been hit by the citrus greening epidemic. The so-far incurable disease attacks the fruit, causing it to turn green and bitter, and eventually killing the tree. The epidemic has waned citrus production in recent decades, though farmers were on track to bounce back — until Irma.

The losses have put a financial strain on growers, but remedy awaits them at the federal level.

The Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program will distribute $2.36 billion worth of disaster relief to growers affected by catastrophes across the country. The USDA expects to open a sign-up period for the program no later than July 16.

As well, the federal government announced in May a block grant totaling $340 million that will be made available to citrus growers in Florida to cover the buying and replanting of trees, grove rehabilitation, and repairs to irrigation systems.

The first forecast for the upcoming season will be posted at noon, October 11.

State looks to give tourism boost to Keys

The state’s tourism-marketing agency is again focusing attention on the Florida Keys after the area was battered less than a year ago by Hurricane Irma.

While boasting about how quickly the Keys were able to reopen after last September’s storm, VISIT FLORIDA’s approximately $200,000 “Keys to Summer” campaign is intended to reaffirm the islands are open.

Unlike a $5 million post-Irma marketing effort last fall and winter, a big part of the upcoming drive will involve the use of social media.

The campaign also is employing digital billboards in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami that show the miles to the Keys and includes a partnership with American Airlines highlighting a new direct route from Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport to Key West International Airport.

A report for VISIT FLORIDA by Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics company, found that Irma cost the state $1.5 billion in visitor spending, based on tourism trends before the storm swept through the state.

Irma made landfall in the Keys and Collier County before barreling north. Even with the storm, Florida attracted a record 116.5 million visitors last year.

The Tourism Economics report estimated the number could have been 1.8 million visitors higher without the storm.

State lawmakers approved providing $76 million to VISIT FLORIDA for the current year and the same amount for the fiscal year that starts Sunday.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

State continues records battle with nursing home

After being ordered to quickly turn over copies of thousands of death certificates from across the state, the Florida Department of Health has gone to an appeals court in a months-long records battle with a Broward County nursing home where residents died after Hurricane Irma.

Attorneys for the department filed a notice of appeal Wednesday, a day after Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis issued a formal order requiring the agency to turn over the records to The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.

The nursing home and the state have been locked in a series of legal fights since September, including a fight about a state attempt to revoke the facility’s license. The nursing home filed a public-records lawsuit Jan. 31, alleging that the department had improperly refused to provide copies of death certificates for people across the state from Sept. 9 through Sept. 16 — a period that included Hurricane Irma and its immediate aftermath.

An attorney for the nursing home indicated during a hearing last week that the facility is seeking the addresses of locations where other people died during and after the massive storm. Lewis on April 20 had ordered the Department of Health to hand over the documents, but lawyers for the nursing home accused the state of dragging its feet in producing the records. The nursing home also challenged costs that the department wanted to impose for the public documents.

But the Department of Health has pointed, in part, to a need to review and redact information from the records — an argument that Lewis rejected from the bench during the hearing last week and in the formal order issued Tuesday.

Lewis wrote that the Department of Health is “specifically ordered to immediately (within 24 hours of receipt of this order) produce to petitioner electronic copies (e.g. via email, drop box, a flash drive, or other appropriate medium) all of the approximate 5,907 death certificate records that petitioner has requested (and which were previously ordered to be produced by this court’s April 20 final judgment), all without review or redaction of any information or fields on the death certificates, except the ‘cause of death’ field information, which should not be included in any of the death certificate records produced to petitioner.”

But the Department of Health filed notice Wednesday that it was taking the case to the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal, a move that places an automatic stay on Lewis’ ruling. As is common, the notice did not provide detailed legal arguments, but it pointed to the issue of reviewing and redacting information from the records.

“The order directs the Florida Department of Health to release approximately 5,907 death certificate records to the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, LLC, without any review or redaction of any information or fields on the death certificates, except the ‘cause of death,’” said the notice, posted on the Leon County clerk of courts website.

The notice was filed just hours after the same appeals court backed the state Agency for Health Care Administration in other legal disputes with The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. A three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld agency decisions last year to suspend the nursing home’s license to operate, suspend its participation in the Medicaid program and place a moratorium on Medicaid admissions.

The state also has moved to revoke the facility’s license — a decision that is being litigated in the Division of Administrative Hearings.

The legal fights are rooted in the nursing home’s loss of its air-conditioning system Sept. 10 as Hurricane Irma pounded the state. The outage created sweltering conditions that resulted in the facility being evacuated Sept. 13. Authorities have attributed 12 deaths to problems at the nursing home after the storm.

Citizens Insurance board delays vote on new rates until year’s end

Citizens Property Insurance Corp.’s board of governors is putting off until December a decision on whether to seek premium increases of an average 7.9 percent on residential policies and 8.9 percent on commercial lines.

Board members said Tuesday that they wanted to give Citizens staff time to resolve a large number of Hurricane Irma claims and update efforts to steer policyholders toward its list of approved contractors.

“I feel very strongly that our state is still under some duress from this last storm,” Governor Bette Brown said. “Statewide, but specifically also in South Dade and the Keys.”

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, whose department includes the state’s Office of Insurance Regulation, agreed “that we might want to consider postponing this,” Brown said.

The new rates would take effect in February 2019. The delay would leave plenty of time to secure OIR approval, corporation chairman Barry Gilway said.

It also would leave the Legislature time to again consider assignment of benefits reform, which Gilway said contributed to a 24 percent increase in litigation against the company during the first quarter of 2018, as compared to the same period last year.

“I think that would be a great idea,” Governor John Wortman said.

“The CFO’s office, as well as the governor’s office, has indicated a strong desire to work with all the stakeholders in the AOB controversy, in an attempt to work that out,” said Governor Jim Holton. Legislative leaders, he said, have indicated “they are going to take a very good look at AOB.”

The Legislature failed to agree on AOB reform during each of the past two legislative sessions.

A staff analysis suggests Citizens’ residential insurance lines should increase by 26.5 percent next year, and commercial lines by 54.6 percent. However, state law limits premium hikes for Citizens’ customers to no more than 10 percent. (Details on rates proposal here.)

Such figures represent averages, and individual premiums could vary widely.

Citizens manages its risk by maintaining a $65 billion surplus and investments in the reinsurance market.

AOB agreements allow policyholders to cede their legal rights to third parties including contractors, often to get repairs started expeditiously and relieve themselves of the burden of working with their insurers or waging any litigation.

Such litigation, mostly involving non-storm-related water damage claims, long was centered in the “Tri-County Region” — Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties — but increasingly is spreading out statewide, Gilway said.

Irma-related lawsuits represent 60 percent of new litigation filed against Citizens, he said. in 47 percent of those cases, policyholders hadn’t disputed Citizens position on their claims — a “staggering number,” Gilway said.

Defending such claims will cost Citizens and plaintiffs attorneys each more than $70 million this year, consuming 17 percent of premiums paid. “There’s no question that those numbers are consistent with the industry,” he said.

“The answer is not to simply increase the payout on water damage claims. That is what the plaintiffs’ counsel would have you believe — just pay more and you will reduce your litigation,” Gilway said.

“It works the opposite — you pay more, as we did in the early years,” he said. “We did pay more, we did settle more, and litigation was increasing.”

Citizens created a managed repair program to encourage policyholders to call the company for a referral to approved repair vendors, but the voluntary program was not terribly successful.

In response, Citizens plans to offer inducements, including multiple opportunities to enroll. The company will pay $3,000 to immediately dry out any damage, to discourage policyholders from resorting to AOB agreements with unsanctioned contactors. The total for non-storm water repairs would be limited to $10,000. The new language would take effect on Aug. 1.

Update: Patronis later issued the following written statement:

“I am glad the Citizens Property Insurance Corporation Board of Governors did not vote to raise rates today. Passing along a costly burden to policyholders while many are still recovering from an active hurricane season is not a solution. As I stated in my letter to the Board of Governors, we must find an alternative resolution to the underlying problem. Systemic abuse of assignment of benefits (AOB) and excessive litigation is the problem. I remain committed to working with stakeholders from now until the December meeting to come up with better solutions to address the AOB epidemic while keeping policyholders’ best interest at the forefront.”

 

 

Court backs move to shutter nursing home after deaths

A state appeals court Wednesday upheld moves by Gov. Rick Scott’s administration to shut down a Broward County nursing home that drew nationwide attention last year after the deaths of residents following Hurricane Irma.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal, in a 15-page ruling, rejected challenges to Agency for Health Care Administration orders that suspended The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills’ license to operate; suspended the facility’s participation in the Medicaid program; and placed a moratorium on Medicaid admissions.

The ruling is part of a series of legal battles spawned by the deaths of residents after the Hollywood nursing home’s air-conditioning system was knocked out by Hurricane Irma. Authorities have attributed 12 deaths to problems at the nursing home after the storm.

Attorneys for the nursing home challenged the agency’s orders on a series of grounds. For example, in the challenge to the suspension from the Medicaid program, they argued the agency failed to detail facts that support “a finding of ‘immediate danger’ to the public health, safety or welfare. The order recites that residents of the nursing home ‘ultimately expired’ but fails to state any specific or particular acts or omissions of the appellant (the nursing home) or its officers, agents, or employees that are alleged to have caused the resident deaths.”

But the appeals court rejected such arguments and alluded to eight deaths that were quickly reported after the nursing home was evacuated Sept. 13 and residents went to a nearby hospital. An investigation later led authorities to attribute other deaths to the conditions.

“The (AHCA) order did not allege an isolated incident or a single mistake in judgment. Instead, it alleged that a total of eight patients died over the course of several hours, three prior to the arrival of first responders, in a facility so hot the first responders evacuated it,” said the ruling, written by appeals court Judge James Wolf and joined by judges Clay Roberts and T. Kent Wetherell. “The facility staff failed to evacuate the patients to the open hospital across the street even after multiple patients suffered medical distress and several died. This order sufficiently alleged an immediate, serious danger to the public health, safety, or welfare. AHCA was statutorily required to suspend the facility’s Medicaid participation upon evidence of patient abuse or neglect. Thus, the order could not have been more narrowly tailored.”

Similarly, the court rejected the nursing home’s arguments that the order suspending the facility’s license to operate was insufficient.

“It included facts alleging a causal connection between the heat and the patients’ deaths,” Wolf wrote. “Four of the residents died soon after being admitted to the hospital with body temperatures between 107 and 109.9 degrees. However, staff members went back and created ‘late entry’ notes reflecting that the patients had relatively normal body temperatures at a time when they were already dead or dying at the hospital.”

The court also ruled that the nursing home’s challenge to the moratorium on Medicaid admissions was moot because of the order suspending the facility’s license to operate.

Hurricane Irma knocked out the nursing home’s air conditioning system on Sept. 10 as the storm caused destruction through much of Florida. The cooling system remained out for three days, creating sweltering conditions, according to authorities.

Scott’s administration issued the moratorium and suspension orders within days of the evacuation. It also later moved to revoke the facility’s license — a decision that is being litigated in the state Division of Administrative Hearings. Meanwhile, another case filed by the nursing home against the Agency for Health Care Administration is pending in Leon County circuit court.

#2 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Bob Buckhorn

The last time anyone asked, Tampanians overwhelmingly said they approve of the job Bob Buckhorn has done as Mayor of Tampa. Back in November, some three-quarters of 350 Tampa residents surveyed said they approve of his performance, and most said the city is headed in the right direction — that was before Raybor was a thing.

In his more than seven years as mayor, Buckhorn has been a vocal proponent of downtown Tampa’s transformation from a gritty spot with little activity to a vibrant hub with a true sense of place. The same goes for recently-reimagined neighborhoods like Ybor City and Tampa Heights.

“Tampa’s Mayor gets stuff done,” said Southern Strategy Group’s Seth McKeel. “He’ll leave Tampa way better than he found it and has ensured a significant and long-lasting legacy.”

Buckhorn’s office likely selected Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park for his final State of the City address in May for more than its pretty backdrop. The newly revamped park, which sits on the Hillsborough River’s long-ignored western bank, is emblematic of the progress the city has seen under Buckhorn’s direction.

Buckhorn has been getting plenty of time on camera as part of Hillsborough County leaders’ efforts to build a stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in Ybor City.

But construction cranes, food halls, a lovely riverfront and the possibility of pro baseball in Tampa proper only tell part of the story. In the past year, Buckhorn was front-and-center as national news outlets depicted a region that sat squarely in the crosshairs of Hurricane Irma. Months later, he was the face of the effort to find the Seminole Heights killer, which ultimately led to the suspect’s arrest in December.

While Buckhorn’s been an effective mayor, he is not without his foils. Pre-emption policies Republican lawmakers have passed at the state level have blocked Buckhorn and other Democratic Florida mayors from enacting local regulations on a range of matters, including guns and raising the minimum wage. And while Buckhorn has long been a vocal advocate of overhauling Tampa’s sorely-lacking transit infrastructure, his calls for boosting gridlock-easing public transportation are often met with little enthusiasm at the county and state level.

It’s unclear what Buckhorn will be up to a year from now. He leaves office in spring of 2019. It’s been over a year since he turned down a run for governor, but he appears to be up for serving as lieutenant governor under the right person. He could also do what many former electeds do: transition back into private life as a well-paid consultant, at least for the time being.

In the meantime, he probably won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Despite his term ending next year and an uncertain future after that, Buckhorn climbed to the No. 2 spot from his third-place ranking in 2017.

Joe Henderson‘s take: “He is term-limited as Tampa’s mayor next year, but he likes the action too much to stay on the sideline.”

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

Irma insurance losses close to $10 billion

Insurance loss estimates from Hurricane Irma have hit $9.7 billion, up by more than $1 billion since April, according to the latest numbers posted by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.

Insurers also advised the state agency that the number of claims had reached 987,767 from the massive and deadly September storm. The was up more than 54,000 from when numbers were previously updated in April.

Officials said they expected claims to be made for more than a year after the storm, as property owners are able to get complete assessments of the damages.

Erin VanSickle, deputy chief of staff in the Office of Insurance Regulation, said to the agency’s knowledge, no insurer has indicated difficulty in paying claims.

The state agency doesn’t release data by individual insurance companies, asserting protection of trade secrets. The numbers also don’t include most agriculture losses, which the state has estimated at $2.5 billion, or damage inflicted by the storm on government facilities, including buildings, roads, parks and beaches.

Insurance companies had closed 91.5 percent of residential claims but just 68.4 percent of commercial-property claims, according to the numbers, which were as of Tuesday.

Of the 823,733 residential claims filed, 491,273 had been settled with some payment and 262,809 resulted in no money changing hands. Insurance officials have noted the amount of damages often fail to reach policyholders’ hurricane deductibles.

On the commercial side, nearly 40 percent of the 58,544 claims failed to result in insurance payments, while nearly 30 percent had seen money paid.

Across the state, the top counties for damage claims were Miami-Dade with 125,636, Collier with 88,934, Broward with 80,958 and Lee with 79,804.

Nearly 20 percent of the claims in Miami-Dade County had yet to be closed, while 33 percent had been closed without any payments.

Broward County had the next highest percentage of open claims, at nearly 15 percent.

Collier was at 89.5 percent closed, Orange County was at 93 percent, and Duval County stood at nearly 95 percent.

Irma made landfall twice in Florida on Sept. 10. It first hit Cudjoe Key, less than 30 miles northeast of Key West, and later hit Collier County before running up the peninsula.

Overall, 16 counties each had more than 20,000 insurance claims.

Orange County had seen 73,982 claims filed and Duval, which suffered major flooding from the St. Johns River, had 36,830 claims.

Monroe County, which comprises the Florida Keys, had seen 30,767 claims, of which 57 percent required insurance payments and just over 10 percent of the claims remained open.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Hurricane Irma produced a litigation wave at Citizens Insurance, committee told

Hurricane Irma-related lawsuits surged at Citizens Property Insurance Corp. early this year, representing a nearly 50 percent increase in the company’s litigation load compared to the same period in 2017.

More than 90 percent of those lawsuits originated in South Florida.

The state’s insurer of last resort fielded 4,287 legal claims in January through April, the vast majority involving residential policies. Irma claims represented 60 percent of that litigation, according to a report delivered to Citizens’ claims committee during a telephone conference call Wednesday.

The Category 4 storm hit the Florida Keys in September 2017 and then ran up the state’s spine. It had generated 924,439 insurance claims in all as of April 6, of which 91 percent have been resolved, according to the state Office of Insurance Regulation. The monetary value exceeded $8.6 billion,

In nearly half of the lawsuits, policyholders hadn’t disputed Citizens’ adjustment decisions before filing, even though the company encourages them to update claims based on emerging information about the scope of their damage.

“These insured are just giving over the option and opportunity to further adjust the claim with us and just going straight to sue,” Elaina Paskalakis, Citizens’ vice president for claim litigation, told the committee.

Even so, more than half of the claims arrived within six months of a reported loss, a 9 percent increase compared to pre-Irma litigation.

“This is trending up despite the fact that insureds who filed suit and had representation at first notice of loss has decreased by almost 22 percent (currently 61 percent as compared to 83 percent pre-Irma) as many insureds reported their own losses,” the report says.

Vendors holding assignment of benefits agreements filed 9 percent of the lawsuits. Citizens — along with other insurers, business more broadly, and officials in the insurance office — blame abusive AOB practices for inflating monetary demands and litigation.

Judge: Nursing home to pay ‘reasonable fee’ for records

The state can’t charge the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills anywhere close to $30,000 to produce the records of deaths occurring statewide during and immediately following Hurricane Irma, a judge said Tuesday.

The Department of Health wanted the Broward County nursing home, where 12 people died because of sweltering conditions when the power failed, to pay $5 each for paper records of the nearly 6,000 deaths that occurred across the state at the same time.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis in Tallahassee told an attorney representing the state to produce electronic copies instead, and to charge only reasonable costs of preserving the records on a computer disk or flash drive.

“They don’t even want paper copies,” Lewis told assistant general counsel Michael Williams.

Williams argued that state law required extensive redactions of the records to shield the causes of death. However, Timothy Elliott, of Smith & Associates’ Tallahassee office, representing the nursing home, said officials routinely produce such redacted records at minimal cost.

In light of that, the state’s demand is “inherently unreasonable,” Elliott said. “There has to be a reasonable fee.”

Lewis agreed: “That would make it silly to me, and illogical, to require your department to spend all that time, and have them pay all that money, to redact something that’s not necessary and that the public can get otherwise,” he said.

“If all they want is take that information and put it on a disc, that shouldn’t take that much,” Lewis added.

Lewis also ruled that the nursing home is entitled to recover its costs in litigating its records demand against the state. He told the parties to confer on language summing up his ruling from the bench and return it for review.

The state went after the home’s license following the tragedy, but staff responded that they’d tried phoning Gov. Rick Scott and received no answer. Meanwhile, the Legislature passed a law requiring homes to acquire electric generators, but many remain out of compliance.

Lewis ordered the agency to turn over the records in April, provoking the fresh litigation over its fee demand. Earlier court documents had placed the amount at around $6,000, but the larger figure emerged during Tuesday’s hearing.

The nursing home hopes to establish that its staff acted reasonably in declining to evacuate its residents. The law firm’s Geoffrey Smith said research suggests evacuating frail elderly ahead of a natural disaster can cause more deaths than sheltering in place.

“It’s important to place the whole thing in some perspective,” Smith said. “When we get away from the sensationalism, most people would see it was pretty reasonable to do what they did.”

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