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Session will test deal made on malpractice

House and Senate negotiators agree on a $500,000 cap, but the rank and file may not buy it.

Published August 12, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Uncertainty will surround lawmakers as they return to the Capitol today to take up the rising cost of medical malpractice insurance for the fourth time this year.

No one can guarantee that the bill their leaders agreed to last week will do the one thing everyone says is needed: lower doctors' insurance rates.

It's not even clear the bill will pass.

One thing is certain: Neither side likes the compromise lawmakers will be debating, and both will try to change it. The session is set to end Friday.

Doctors say skyrocketing malpractice insurance rates are forcing them out of business or out of the state.

This is the third special session lawmakers have called on the issue after failing in the regular session that ended in early May.

The most contentious part of the bill is a cap on damages for pain and suffering. Doctors and insurance companies sought a $250,000 cap, but lawmakers have agreed to a $500,000 cap that can increase to $1-million under certain circumstances. Lawyers oppose any cap.

"I've been told we've got the votes," Gov. Jeb Bush said Monday, adding that he was counting on fellow Republican leaders in the Senate and House who have assured him the measure would pass.

It faces an uphill battle in the Senate, and nearly every interest group it affects is opposed, from the Florida Medical Association to the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers. Democrats, meanwhile, complain that there is no guarantee that rates will drop.

The bill freezes rates for six months. During that time, the state Department of Insurance will calculate how much rates should be lowered, based on assumptions about how doctors, lawyers and insurers will behave in response to the bill.

The lower rates take effect Jan. 1 unless insurance companies challenge them.

"We cannot guarantee that there will be a rate rollback," said Sam Miller, spokesman for the Florida Insurance Council. "We hope there will be, but we can't guarantee it."

But Florida Medical Association president Robert Cline said the $500,000 compromise cap is too high. "Until that change is made, the Florida Medical Association is unable to support the bill," Cline said in a statement.

That doesn't faze Senate President Jim King.

"As I've been saying the last 11 months, an ideal bill ... is one nobody likes," King said Monday.

Both Bush and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd have suggested that the Legislature might have to tweak the bill in the 2004 regular session, which King said is unnecessary.

Court challenges are likely regardless of what the Legislature passes.

The Florida Supreme Court struck down a similar cap more than a decade ago, and insurance companies will be eager to see what the court does this time.

The cap, Miller said, "will have zero impact until the Florida Supreme Court upholds it, and that's four or five years from now."

Prison funding on agenda

Bush said Monday he also will ask lawmakers to increase spending for the state prison system by $60-million. Bush said estimates of the expected prison population have increased, requiring the budget adjustment.

"We undercounted the number of prisoners we anticipated," Bush said. "In order to make sure we don't release prisoners early or do anything foolish, we need to ... accelerate our efforts to build more capacity."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified August 12, 2003, 01:32:34]

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