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Workers' comp deal falls apart in Senate

By MICHAEL SANDLER
Published May 22, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Senate altered a plan Wednesday that would fix the state's troubled workers' compensation law, making a change opposed by the House that put the bill's future in question.

Senators unanimously agreed to remove a portion that granted immunity to employers who knowingly put employees in harm's way.

It was a small modification to a complex bill, but enough to test a deal made last week that guaranteed a resolution to the problem by the end of the special session.

Gov. Jeb Bush only added workers' comp to the 16-day budget session after Senate President Jim King and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd signed a paper bearing the agreed-upon changes to the House bill. House leaders want the immunity provision in the bill.

Bush hoped the Senate's change would not serve as a deal breaker, adding that Florida businesses need immediate relief from paying the nation's second-highest rates.

Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said removing the immunity clause in the House bill was important. "We told them from the beginning that we had trouble defending that public policy," Alexander said.

Said Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville: "It was fairly important to us because it was the only thing that we amended that wasn't part of the agreement."

But House Majority Leader Marco Rubio told reporters he could not say what impact the amendment would have on negotiations, adding only that he would have to consult with House Policy Chairman Dudley Goodlette.

Goodlette was at his district office Wednesday and could not be reached for a comment.

The amendment was the only one approved during a spirited debate that lasted hours and saw many lawmakers questioning the bill's intent to also provide relief for injured workers, who receive some of the nation's lowest benefits.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, cleared a path to depart from the deal by speaking in support of the amendment offered by Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Without Campbell's amendment, the bill would have allowed an employer who knowingly sends a worker into a dangerous environment freedom from a civil lawsuit, unless a judge found the employer intended the employee be hurt or killed.

Lee questioned why a workers' compensation bill included such immunity. He said the matter was better-suited to a general liability insurance debate.

"This isn't the place for this issue," Lee said. "This creates incentive for employers to not concern themselves with safety in the work place. This is a very good amendment and I would urge all of you to vote."

The amendment passed without objection.

A slim majority held off the rest of the amendments, though many Republicans joined Democrats at times supporting a few more that nearly passed.

One amendment that tested that majority was a change to the proposed definition for what qualifies as a "catastrophic injury," the standard injured workers must meet to receive total disability benefits.

The bill would remove a federal standard, instead making it so a person would have to lose both arms, both legs, both hands, both feet, both eyes, or any two to qualify.

Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, asked to expand that definition to include such injuries as spinal cord damage that results in severe paralysis, amputation of a single appendage and severe brain damage.

The amendment failed 20-18, the closest vote of the day. Five Republicans voted for the amendment and King several times had to remind members to vote before all votes were recorded.

The bill's three sponsors have asked lawmakers to follow cost projections made by the National Council of Compensation Insurance and referred to the numbers when each amendment was offered.

Insurance lobbyists say following those numbers will result in lower rates by about 12 to 15 percent. The bill does not include a mandatory roll back and an independent review of NCCI's projections commissioned by the Senate found insufficient data supporting the proposed reductions.

Advocates for workers strongly opposed the bill, saying the reduction in rates would primarily come about by making it more difficult for people to claim total disability benefits and sue their insurance companies when they delay or deny claims.

[Last modified May 22, 2003, 01:30:54]

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