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New special session in works

Gov. Jeb Bush is taking a more congenial role in negotiations to finally craft a medical malpractice bill.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published August 7, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - After vowing to kick moderate Republican senators who oppose his medical malpractice fix where it hurts - the campaign coffer - Gov. Jeb Bush said Wednesday he's dropped the politics to focus on a solution.

The strategy appears to be working: Lawmakers are expected to announce as early as today that they are ready to move forward with their third special session on medical malpractice, probably next week.

"I wish we could just cut a deal and move on. This is not my idea of fun," said Bush, who has endured embarrassing leaks about his attempts to twist the arms of key Republican senators.

But while Bush has sworn off politics, the myriad interest groups involved in this debate show no signs of letting up in the fight to persuade Floridians to pressure lawmakers their way. Each day seemingly brings a new television ad opposing caps on medical malpractice jury awards or another news conference showcasing stacks of sworn statements from doctors threatening to leave the state.

Some of the tactics have caused political headaches for Bush - such as a memo that went out this week from the Sarasota County Medical Society saying Bush's office wanted to see a large turnout of doctors at a planned rally at two senators' offices.

"The governor's office, thru the FMA, has requested that during the aforementioned two hours on Monday, August 11th that 100 physicians be at each Senator's office," read the memo, dated Aug. 4. The FMA is the Florida Medical Association, one of Bush's strongest allies and a partner in his call for a $250,000 cap on pain-and-suffering awards.

"Better for us to notify the Governor that we are not going to participate than to have a really bad showing," the memo continued.

Bush said Wednesday he had nothing to do with the planned rally.

"Absolutely not," Bush said.

Nor has he actually told GOP donors to stop contributions to moderate Republican senators until "they do the right thing," as he had suggested before a group of medical and insurance lobbyists last month.

"I haven't been doing that. I have been working in good faith," Bush said Wednesday as he left a meeting with key legislative negotiators.

While Bush was meeting with Sens. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Rod Smith, D-Alachua, and Reps. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, and Allan Bense, R-Panama City, the FMA was preparing its second news conference in two weeks to highlight the 1,600 affidavits it has received from Florida doctors who have either curbed their practices out of fear of being sued or are thinking of cutting back.

Picking up her grandchild, FMA executive vice president Sandy Mortham said she was worried that with so many doctors curbing their practices, there would be no one left to care for Allen Mortham III.

"This is the face that I put on the problem, because this is a very real problem," Mortham said.

Another group, the trial lawyer-backed Florida Conservative Alliance, has raised the ire of the Republican Party of Florida for using the word "conservative." The group is running TV ads across the state featuring interviews with conservatives who say caps are not Republican because they interfere with free enterprise.

Bush referred to the alliance as a "front group" during his meeting with legislative negotiators.

Bush, who has ruffled Senate feathers with his take-no-prisoners approach to getting a cap on pain-and-suffering awards, has spent some time mending fences. Bush recently signaled his support for a $1-million cap in the most egregious cases of malpractice - he prefers a $250,000 cap - but senators have largely dismissed that, saying it would take a "perfect storm" case to ever see that much money.

And late last month, Bush spent two hours behind closed doors with Lee, trying to patch things with the Brandon Republican whom Bush has targeted for special criticism during the medical malpractice debate - and who is in line to be the next Senate president.

How to reduce doctors' medical malpractice insurance premiums has consumed lawmakers all summer; two special sessions have ended in failure as the House and Senate try to bridge the gap between their respective bills.

The House has eased off its demand for a strict, $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages, but not enough to please the Senate, which prefers no cap but has offered $500,000 for most cases.

Senate President Jim King and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd have agreed to let the differences be ironed out by members in a traditional conference committee rather than by negotiators acting at the behest of the two leaders, said Senate Majority Leader Dennis Jones.

"It's major movement, more than we've seen in six months," said Jones, R-Treasure Island.

[Last modified August 7, 2003, 01:47:45]


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