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Senate health package retooled

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000


Republican leaders in the Senate retooled their health care package Tuesday, adding goodies for a number of industries in an effort to win approval for granting patients the right to sue HMOs.

Included in the package are a major tax break for hospitals and a bill that changes the insurance premium rating system for small businesses, measures supported by the House. But the Republican leadership of the House, which has proposed its own health care reform package, remains opposed to expanding patients' right to sue health maintenance organizations.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala declared that the Senate's package was "the real" patient protection act. In an emotional speech before the Banking and Insurance Committee, the Palm Harbor Republican spoke of his own employees who "get a blizzard of paperwork" from HMOs "trying to find a loophole" to get out of paying for covered services.

A House health care package, he said, was "written by the industry, and that's wrong. Senators, the vote on this bill is a good way to send a message that this Senate is not for sale -- this Senate is owned by the people."

The bill passed the Senate committee unanimously. But House Speaker John Thrasher reiterated his opposition to the Senate plan and said the House bill will better protect patients.

Nursing home lawsuit limit in bill

After weeks of intense lobbying, the nursing home industry managed to persuade a Senate committee to adopt a measure making it much more difficult for the elderly to sue nursing homes. The Banking and Insurance Committee action marked the first time lawmakers have agreed to make the proposal part of a bill.

The measure was tacked onto a related nursing home bill by Sen. William "Doc" Myers, R-Stuart. The vote was 3-2 to make nursing home patients who suffer medical abuse bring lawsuits under the state's medical malpractice laws. That is a tougher standard to meet than the current one.

The nursing home industry contends that it needs help: Twenty percent of the state's 82,000 nursing home beds are operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It is becoming increasingly difficult for nursing homes to find companies willing to sell them liability insurance.

The bill still faces a number of obstacles. Senate President Toni Jennings has been wary of passing litigation reform without looking at the industry's financial problems as a whole. The Senate has already voted to study the industry over the next year.

Elevator inspection plan moves up

Elevator inspections in Florida could be turned over to private companies under a plan that the House preliminarily approved. The measure, supported by Gov. Jeb Bush, was amended onto an unrelated bill.

The president of the Elevator Association of Florida has criticized the measure as one designed to benefit private elevator inspectors, including a St. Louis company owned in part by William H.T. "Bucky" Bush. He is the uncle of the Florida governor and a fundraiser for Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Rep. Jeff Miller, a Milton Republican who sponsored the amendment, said the proposal will ensure that 100 percent of the state's elevators are inspected and save the state money. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation currently inspects only 13 percent, he said. Building owners will be charged a fee for the inspection, he said.

Democrats, however, opposed the measure. Rep. Curt Levine, D-Boca Raton, called the fee a "new tax." Others argued that there is no reason to privatize the inspections.

Motorcycle helmet debate revived

Motorcyclists could soon be able to feel the wind in their hair, under a bill the House debated Tuesday.

The bill would scrap the law that requires motorcyclists to wear a helmet and eye protection. Those age 21 or older could ride without a helmet, providing they had insurance coverage for at least $10,000 in medical benefits for motorcycle crash injuries.

The issue comes up year after year but never passes. The House gave preliminary approval to the measure.

Opponents are concerned that health costs would rise because of severe accidents, increasing the state's Medicaid costs and potentially hurting hospitals who have to treat underinsured, injured motorcyclists.

Proponents argue that states without helmet laws actually experience fewer accidents. Helmets cut off peripheral vision and can impair hearing, they said.

Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, made an impassioned plea for this year's proposal. Should the state ban people from going to McDonald's, she asked, because they have high cholesterol?

For information about legislation, call (800) 342-1827 during business hours. Online Sunshine, a computer users' guide to the Florida Legislature, is available at http://www.leg.state.fl.us

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