Letting no-fault lapse is no answer

Published May 9, 2007

If eliminating no-fault automobile insurance had the singular effect of putting ambulance-chasing pseudo-injury clinics out of business, Florida lawmakers could wash their hands and move on. But allowing the law to expire this fall would also, at a minimum, leave hospital emergency rooms stuck paying for uninsured crash victims, and that's irresponsible.

Given that the expiration date, Oct. 1, is less than five months away, the only reasonable course for the Legislature is to add no-fault insurance to its June special session agenda. Gov. Charlie Crist already has hinted he would like to see that happen, and he deserves support.

To date, neither House Speaker Marco Rubio nor Senate President Ken Pruitt has shown much interest in breaking the impasse on no-fault insurance. Part of that reluctance is understandable. Lawmakers have been bombarded by lobbyists from all sorts of interest groups - insurance companies, lawyers, hospitals, doctors, chiropractors. Each seems focused on its own interest, often to the exclusion of the public's.

That said, throwing up their hands in surrender seems a little too calculated. Rubio says he would rather let the law expire than accept the Senate's temporary stopgap measures, but doing nothing also serves the political agenda of insurance companies that are tired of paying no-fault claims.

The no-fault system was enacted in 1971 in an attempt to avoid lawsuits and delays in compensation for accident injuries, but it has given rise to fraudulent claims and entirely too much litigation. So maybe House members were on the right track in proposing simply to limit insurance claims to medical care in an emergency room or hospital. To assure that people with minor injuries were covered, House Majority Whip Ellyn Bogdanoff had tried to amend her bill to include limited outpatient coverage.

Unfortunately, the House bill emerged too late in the session to receive serious consideration, and Rubio quickly dismissed the Senate offer to extend the deadline another four years.

The problem with doing nothing is that safety-net hospitals will certainly pay the price. They have no choice but to treat an accident victim who is wheeled into the emergency room, and they could lose a collective $350-million a year if no-fault insurance is eliminated. Already, roughly 40 percent of accident victims carry no other form of health insurance, and the threat to emergency care facilities cannot be taken lightly.

Some lawmakers suggest they can wait until next year, after the law expires, and simply assess the repercussions. But that assumes the hospitals have the resources to keep their emergency room doors open in the meantime, and that's a deadly gamble.