Workers' comp remade in insurers' image
By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Republican House lawmakers Monday tossed out a compromise proposal to fix the state workers' compensation law and replaced it with a plan designed to help the insurance industry.
It was all done in minutes. Worker advocates were stunned at the speed and disappointed at the results.
The new plan, offered by Rep. Kim Berfield, R-Clearwater, would cut costs by limiting legal fees, fighting fraud and making it tougher for workers to claim benefits, especially for injured workers seeking permanent total disability status.
Advocates for workers said the new plan would allow insurance companies to deny benefits to an injured worker who can work one hour a week.
"You could almost say a person with a quadriplegic injury could be a mattress tester," attorney Brian Sutter, president of the Florida Workers Advocates, told the panel in protest.
Other changes included:
A tougher standard for workers seeking benefits for exposure to toxic chemicals.
No hourly fees for lawyers defending workers, but no restrictions on lawyers defending insurance companies.
Cutoff age of 70 for people receiving non-medical benefits for permanent total disability claims.
The Committee on State Administration met at 8:30 a.m., before many legislators returned from their weekend. Their changes came about after limited discussion and no debate. Committee Chairman Connie Mack, R-Fort Lauderdale, interrupted Sutter's testimony to ask him to hurry up because the committee had other business.
Then, Mack led the all-Republican committee in effectively killing a proposal passed by the House Insurance Committee April 9, when it voted on nearly 30 amendments before producing a bill. They replaced it with a 177-page substitute that opponents first learned of minutes before it sailed through.
"We were asked to go back and revisit it," Berfield said. "We sat down and worked with staff this weekend for a lengthy amount of time. That was what came forward from that meeting."
It also nearly matched to the letter written instructions submitted to members by Associated Industries of Florida, which represents some of Florida's biggest and most influential businesses and operates a workers' compensation insurance company.
Berfield said she did not get a copy, though AIF's lobbyist said she was e-mailed one.
Mary Ann Stiles, a lobbyist for AIF, said the group opposed the Insurance Committee bill because it would have increased rates, which Gov. Jeb Bush opposes.
The bill now goes to the full House. The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee is prepared to take up the issue today.
Byrd defended the rush to rewrite the House bill. "It did not nullify any work," Byrd said. "It was further refinement of work going on for a long time. There's a long way to go on that bill."
Bush has made workers' compensation reform a priority this session, saying that Floridians pay some of the nation's highest rates while receiving some of the lowest benefits. One of the chief findings of a task force he appointed is that permanent and total disability claims are more than 21/2 times the national average.
But some say the new proposal considered only half the task at hand.
"It's obvious this is a bill that seeks to reduce rates on the backs of injured workers," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who serves on the House Insurance Committee.
Two of the most controversial provisions from the original bill survived. One forces workers injured on the job to prove the employer knew of the danger and intended for them to be hurt rather than simple negligence.
Another would protect a subcontractor from liability if one of his workers injures another subcontractor's worker at a general contractor's site.
Sutter said a crane operator who dropped a ton of bricks on a worker could breathe a sigh of relief if that person worked for someone else.
Insurance companies gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates last year, and two of four cosponsors of the new bill work in the industry.
Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs, was offended when asked about the industry's influence. He said lawyers handed out instruction sheets and contributed heavily to candidates, too.
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From the Times state desk
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