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Workers' comp bill gets its 2nd wind

In an about-face, the governor asks legislators to tackle the issue during their special session.

Published May 16, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Jeb Bush changed his mind Thursday and asked Florida legislators to solve the workers' compensation crisis by the end of their special session.

Bush initially wanted lawmakers to focus solely on the budget during the 16-day session. But after expressing satisfaction that the House and Senate leadership had reached enough agreement on a workers' comp bill, he asked lawmakers to add it to the agenda.

"The progress on this priority is encouraging and should be continued," Bush said in a statement.

His decision comes as a growing number of legislators - Republicans and Democrats - question insurance industry data that lawmakers relied on to write the bill revamping the state's system.

While the House had already voted to add the bill to the special session, the Senate hesitated Wednesday when Democrats expressed concern about cost projections for various changes provided by the National Council of Compensation Insurance.

Senate President Jim King responded by hiring a consultant to review the data. But on Thursday, King said the Senate will agree to the governor's request.

"There is absolutely no way you'll ever appease all the people," King said. "We'll try to make sure everybody is a little bit of a winner and loser without dismantling the entire workers' comp system and taking a whole new approach to it."

Since the regular session began in March, insurance lobbyists have persuaded a majority of legislators to rely on NCCI's cost projections. They say those numbers, for such measures as capping attorneys' fees, promise to lower insurance rates for most employers by 14 percent. But the bill does not include a mandatory rollback of rates, and advocates for workers have complained that many changes would hamper workers' ability to claim benefits.

NCCI, a Boca Raton organization, files rate requests on behalf of all insurance companies offering workers' comp insurance in Florida. Many other states require individual carriers to file their own rate requests. All rates are reviewed and approved by the state's Office of Insurance Regulation.

Several legislators, including key Republican senators, had previously raised concerns about the data. Among the senators questioning the numbers were Banking and Insurance Committee Chairman Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, and Charlie Clary, R-Destin, the initial sponsor of the Senate bill.

This week, Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, asked the House Insurance Committee to commission an independent review of the numbers. The House obliged him Thursday by adding the review every two years - beginning next February. A joint Senate-House committee also will study the rate-making process.

But that won't affect this year's bill. The House continued to move it along Thursday. King said a Senate committee will resume work on the bill next week.

Senate Minority Leader Ron Klein expressed puzzlement over Bush's reversal. Klein feared that Bush, King and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd were rushing to pass a bill because of public sentiment suggesting that "people don't think the Legislature is doing the job."

Klein cautioned that passing a bill without validation of the data could backfire.

"If we rush to pass a bill and the results show it will cause rates to go up and benefits to be reduced, we've got a problem," Klein said.

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 16, 2003, 02:01:19]

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