tampabay.com

No-fault might be revived

Gov. Crist may place car insurance on the agenda for the Legislature's special session.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published May 6, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist said Saturday he may expand the agenda of the June special session on property taxes to give lawmakers another chance to come up with an automobile insurance fix.

On Oct. 1, the state's mandatory no-fault law will disappear because the Legislature ended its session Friday without agreeing to extend the law that requires motorists to carry a minimum amount of medical coverage for collision injuries no matter who is at fault.

It's the fourth year in a row that lawmakers have opted not to decide what kind of insurance Florida drivers should carry.

"I've already talked to the leadership about it. I think that having that kind of coverage is important, " said Crist. "It doesn't sunset until October, and obviously that gives us an opportunity to continue it."

During the past 36 years, state law has required all Florida drivers to buy $10, 000 medical insurance policies. But in 2003, amid complaints from insurance companies that no-fault coverage was a magnet for fraud, the Legislature set Oct. 1 as a sunset date for no-fault coverage, also known as Personal Injury Protection. The idea was to force lawmakers to find a way to restructure auto insurance to wipe out fraud. In years past, they have pushed back the deadline to give themselves another year.

The Legislature's inaction this year means a premium break for customers of State Farm, the state's largest private auto insurer. State Farm took a chance and filed a rate decrease with the Office of Insurance Regulation before the session, based on the assumption that lawmakers would allow the law to disappear.

State Farm spent most of the session lobbying to make that happen, holding out the incentive that their customers would save about $360 a year in a typical two-car family.

"It's just a rotten coverage, it only covers $10, 000 in medical benefits, and there's no cost controls on that medical coverage, " said Chris Neal, a State Farm spokesman.

Eliminating the no-fault mandatory coverage is good news for those who have health insurance, because they will no longer have to pay for medical coverage that duplicates their health plans.

But for those who don't have health insurance, the expiration of no-fault coverage means they may well be driving without any ability to cover costs if they injure themselves or others in a wreck.

That's why doctors and hospitals were urging the Legislature to leave no-fault intact. They fear a flood of patients coming through emergency rooms with auto injuries and no way to pay for treatment.

The problem is the House and Senate remain at odds on the issue.

The Senate passed a bill earlier this week that would have extended the state's no-fault law for four years, with $2.8-million toward fighting fraud. It died in the House.

"I've said from the beginning that we need to have significant measures, antifraud measures, and those didn't happen, " said House Speaker Marco Rubio after the session ended on Friday. "So the issue remains an October sunset unless something comes up in the interim."