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Watch health costs soar if no-fault goes

By SUE G. BRODY, Special to the Times
Published August 6, 2007


 

Gov. Charlie Crist is known as the "People's Governor." His commitment to advancing the issues that define daily life for so many Floridians distinguishes the first phase of his term. Now Florida's hospitals and emergency health care providers are watching the clock tick toward the sunset of personal injury protection (PIP) and wondering if that commitment extends to us.

On Oct. 1, Florida's mandatory PIP, also known as no-fault automobile insurance, is due to permanently end. That would usher in an unfavorable beginning for thousands suddenly placed among the ranks of the state's uninsured. For more than three decades, this law has provided integral coverage for auto accident victims.

Many insurance companies would have its customers believe that the elimination of PIP is a benefit to their household budgets - that if PIP is no longer mandatory for Florida's drivers, the result will be money saved for each policyholder. But a closer look reveals a more complex story.

The number of patients treated for injuries related to auto accidents continues to rise, as does the number of uninsured. According to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, Florida sees more than 250,000 auto crashes annually. About 140,000 drivers or passengers are injured.

Based on a Florida Hospital Association survey, 40 percent of those injured in car crashes have no other form of health insurance than PIP, often because of the lack of affordable coverage. The remaining 60 percent are covered by private health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Without no-fault coverage, their health insurance becomes the sole source of reimbursement, which, ultimately, may mean higher premiums and increased costs for businesses providing medical coverage to their employees.

Not only should we weigh the obvious financial challenges a sudden rise in the number of uninsured would present, but subsequent consequences, even for those with insurance, merit consideration. One example: The sunset of our no-fault system will undoubtedly result in more resource-consuming litigation that will negatively affect both providers and consumers.

Drivers may see immediate savings on PIP premiums. But the number of people involved in accidents and the costs associated with their care will continue to rise. The reality of the costs of care associated with accidents is not going away. Adding the thousands of drivers currently covered by PIP to the state's list of uninsured simply shifts the financial burden to hospitals like Bayfront that will continue to provide the treatment accident victims need, regardless of their ability to pay.

As the leader of Bayfront Health System - a private, not-for-profit hospital in St. Petersburg that serves as Pinellas County's only trauma center - I see the crisis of our area's uninsured grow daily and can attest to the significant impact the expiration of PIP would have on health care.

At Bayfront, we treat thousands of people who need us at their most vulnerable times. Bayflite, our emergency helicopter program, brings life-saving care to patients in 15 counties, and more than three-fourths of Bayflite's patients are victims of car crashes. Last year, Bayfront treated more than 3,000 auto accident victims, many of whom had no other form of health insurance than PIP.

Driven by our mission of providing quality health care for all, we are the largest provider of charity care in Pinellas County. Last year alone, we provided more than $15-million of uncompensated care. It is our honor to meet this noble mission. However, Bayfront cannot complete this ambitious endeavor alone. We count on the partnership of our expert physicians, elected officials and other organizations with whom we share common objectives to help us seamlessly meet the health needs of our community.

We look forward to our elected officials in Tallahassee doing what is right for health care in this state. To allow PIP's end without discussion is a disservice to all of us. A law mandating auto insurance is necessary to ensure hospitals like Bayfront remain viable centers of excellence for everyone in our communities. That legislation starts with Gov. Crist adding PIP to the agenda of the September special session of the Legislature. Please contact the governor and our local legislators today to let them know, like your medical community, you are looking to them to do the right thing for Florida's people.

Sue G. Brody is president and chief executive officer of Bayfront Health System, parent organization of Bayfront Medical Center, a 502-bed, private not-for-profit hospital in St. Petersburg.

By the numbers

250,000 auto crashes annually statewide

140,000 drivers or passengers are injured

Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles

40 percent of those injured in car crashes have no other form of health insurance than PIP

60 percent are covered by private health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid

Florida Hospital Association

3,000 auto accident victims were treated at Bayfront Medical Center last year

3/4 of Bayflite's patients are victims of car crashes

$15-million in uncompensated care delivered last year

Bayfront Medical Center