Massive rewrite of workers’ comp laws set aside

first_img April 1, 2002 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News More modest changes still in the mix Massive rewrite of workers’ comp laws set aside Senior EditorEfforts for a massive rewrite of Florida’s workers’ compensation laws may have ended March 12 in a Senate committee when the bill sponsor scrapped most of the far-reaching provisions and settled for more modest changes.Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, said he had been trying to work with a coalition of businesses seeking major changes, including limits on attorneys’ fees, but said he tired of dealing with them. The Banking and Insurance Committee passed his amended bill 10-0. It was scheduled for three other committees, but because of the approaching end of the session might go directly to the Senate floor.“Basically they told me it was all or nothing, forgetting temporarily who was sponsoring the bill,” Latvala told the committee. “My first inclination was to let the bill go for the year. But I really felt there are four or five sections of the bill that have some meaningful things in them that I thought were worth pursuing further.. . . I would rather chip away at the problem rather than have an all or nothing approach.”Rafael Gonzalez, chair of The Florida Bar’s Workers’ Compensation Section, said the section supported the revised bill, which he said would speed up the handling of claims.“We are especially appreciative of Sen. Latvala’s support of mandatory appellate mediation,” he said. “The appellate mediation program that existed has been very successful, but was done away with because of the lack of resources.”Latvala said his bill would:• Shorten the time for required mediation when a claim is filed from 124 to 90 days, and cut the time for the final hearing from 210 to 180 days.• Have expedited hearings from claims of $5,000 or less involving medical benefits only.• Allow continuances only for circumstances beyond the parties’ control, with any continuance order being required to contain a specific date for the next hearing.• Allow judges of compensation claims to dismiss claims that have been inactive for 12 months, unless good cause is shown.• Require appellate mediation. Latvala said both plaintiff and defense sides met with First District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Michael E. Allen to work out the best way to do that.• Require that all workers on commercial construction sites worth more than $250,000 be covered by workers’ comp. insurance. Some workers on smaller projects, as well as those on residential construction involving single family homes, duplexes, and triplexes, would continue to qualify for exemptions. That exemption issue is one of the touchiest in the workers’ compensation debate, according to senators and speakers at the committee.“This covers some issues that need to be covered. It addresses some issues that need to be addressed,” Latvala said of the amended bill. “If we get three or four good things done, I’ll leave it to the rest of you to get more done next year.”Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac, announced that if he wins reelection in November he intends to work with Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, a workers’ comp. defense lawyer, to craft a major overhaul of the system.“The problem with workers’ compensation is it’s broke. We try to put a Band-Aid on it every year,” he said. In next year’s bill, he continued, “Employers will get reasonable rates and workers will be protected and doctors will get reasonable fees, and we’ll try to make sure the benefits are equivalent to what the workers should get. We’re going to talk about permanent partial disability and restoring some of that so we don’t have so many seeking permanent total disability. And exemptions are going to be done in my bill; tell the home builders that.”Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, and next year’s Senate president, said he would support that effort, joking, “If. . . Sen. Campbell’s bill really perks along and looks good, someone in the Republican Party will claim it, and we’ll claim victory.”Under state law, construction companies can exempt some owners and officers from workers’ comp. coverage. But the problem, senators and speakers said, is some companies misuse those exemptions and others simply fail to pay premiums to cover workers. Those companies get a significant competitive advantage, which hurts companies that follow the law, and the state’s enforcement is weak and penalties are mild, according to critics.Banking and Insurance Committee Chair Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, said one study showed while insurers get $2.9 billion in workers’ comp. premiums, another $1.4 billion is lost through fraud related to construction exemptions. He also said most of the fraud comes on projects not covered in Latvala’s bill.He and others noted while Florida has among the highest, if not the highest, premiums in the nation, payments to injured workers are among the lowest. But while that won’t be addressed this year, Latvala’s bill “I believe from the bottom of my heart is going to set a solid foundation for the workers’ comp. reform we need,” Posey said.The Senate bill, SB 2304, now becomes radically different from the House version, HB 1947, which raises the basic compensation scale for workers’ comp. plaintiff attorneys, but banned any extra fees for extra work, such as getting tests originally denied by an employer/carrier. The bill also reduced payments to some older workers and limited exams for injured workers. ( See story in the March 15 News. )Gonzalez, of the Workers’ Compensation Section, said after the meeting the House could amend its bill to match the Senate version in the last days of the session, recognizing the reluctance of the upper chamber to make major changes this year. Massive rewrite of workers’ comp laws set asidelast_img

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