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    Angry crowd lashes lawmaker over lack of public testimony

    By Times staff and wire reports
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 8, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- A crowd of angry consumers hoping to testify against a health insurance bill exploded in anger Thursday when the panel's chairman, Rep. Frank Farkas of St. Petersburg, pushed through a vote on his own bill without allowing public testimony.

    The only testimony was from an insurance industry lobbyist who favors the bill.

    "I hope you can sleep," Arthur Green, a Broward County lawyer, shouted at Farkas after the meeting of the House Health Regulation Committee. "It was absolutely outrageous. I needed to express that."

    Green drove more than 400 miles from his Coral Springs home to testify against the bill. He and many other witnesses who went unheard are parents of children born with a cleft palate, a condition requiring many expensive medical operations. Green was one of about a dozen people who charged out of their seats and screamed at Farkas as the hearing ended.

    "I'm getting blamed for it, but I wasn't running the meeting," Farkas said later. "I welcomed that testimony. I wasn't there to cut these people off."

    Farkas has been trying to pass the bill for three years. His bill (HB 913) would give employers a choice of buying flexible health plans while allowing them to opt out of covering 18 treatments that now must be covered, including cleft palate, mammograms, vasectomies and extended maternity stays.

    The only witness allowed to testify was lobbyist Herb Morgan, who supports the bill. Farkas said his bill is needed to bring spiraling health insurance premium costs under control. Otherwise, he said, some small employers may drop group coverage altogether.

    Rep. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, the panel's vice chairwoman who ran the session until Farkas reclaimed the gavel, called Farkas' behavior "an outrage."

    "We just shut the process down," Sobel said. "It's not the way we should function. Everything's not a slam dunk just because the industry or the lobbyists want it."

    House Democratic Leader Lois Frankel asked House Speaker Tom Feeney to refer the bill back to Farkas' committee for more public testimony.

    The chairman of a committee usually gives the gavel to another member when his bill is being considered. As the vice chairwoman, Sobel took the gavel. She opposes the bill.

    With time running out, and the panel forced to quit by a specific time, Farkas reclaimed the chairmanship after Sobel rejected his request for a quick vote.

    The panel then approved the bill as the crowd watched in disbelief.

    "All of these are very important to somebody," said Missy Turra, a Jacksonville lawyer whose child has a cleft palate. "For most people, if the insurance doesn't cover it, the kid doesn't get the surgery."

    Rep. Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Springs, who joined Sobel in opposing the bill, said it would force uninsured people to be treated at emergency rooms, with costs being passed on to taxpayers.

    "It will have a tremendous effect," Ritter said, adding that lawmakers were not sure of what was in the bill. "Because of that, somebody's going to get rooked."

    The bill now goes to the House Council for Competitive Commerce.

    "We had 20 people to talk on the bill, and we ran out of time," Farkas said. "This is not the last committee hearing on this bill. They will get their chance if they choose to."

    House Minority Leader Frankel sent a letter to Feeney asking him to look into the matter and to have the bill sent back to Farkas' committee so public testimony could be given. A spokeswoman for Feeney said that as of Thursday night, Feeney had not received the letter.

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