Workers compensation isn’t the sexiest item on the 2017 legislative agenda, but it promises to be one of the fiercest fights as lawmakers face enormous pressure to deal with a 14.5 percent rate hike hitting every state employer.
Tallahassee business leaders got a recent glimpse of what lawmakers face if they don’t come up with a workers’ comp fix. During a legislative briefing, Florida Chamber of Commerce lead lobbyist David Hart previewed an attack ad already parked on the chamber’s website.
“Looking for a pay day, billboard trial lawyers have finagled more money out of workers comp cases, so the cost of workers comp insurance has gone up, nearly $1.5 billion dollars, with more increases on the way. That money comes from you…”
The rate increase has its roots in Supreme Court rulings known as “Westphal” and “Costellanos.” Florida justices struck down limits on disability payments, and more significantly, and a cap on attorney fees.
Those changes were made in 2003. Hart says workers’ comp is a top chamber priority this year. But he says the Legislature has never been able to fix such a complex system without calling a special session.
“I hope that history won’t repeat itself this time, because if they don’t fix it this session, the 14.5 percent increase which became effective December 1, will keep hitting you and every employer in this state.”
Lawmakers labeled the 2003 changes “reforms” and from the employer standpoint they worked. Cumulatively, rates fell 60 percent.
But employee groups say the system routinely denies benefits, and when it does, fee caps make it all but impossible to find an attorney. Justices noted the attorney in the Costellanos case was paid the equivalent of $1.53 an hour. Florida AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Templin charges that insurance companies and their rating service, manufactured a crisis 13 years ago to increase profits.
“And then the solution to that crisis was all aimed at denying workers benefits, denying them access to the courts, denying them the ability for retraining programs if they’re injured on the job and have to switch careers. It was all aimed at hurting workers.”
Business groups dispute that. They say everyone loses if an injured worker can’t do the job. AIF chief lobbyist Brewster Bevis says a law making injured workers responsible for attorney fees would lower rates.
“We believe that putting more money into the pockets of the claimants, these injured workers, and letting them pay their attorneys, is the best way to drive down those costs, this cost increase that we’re seeing.”
Lead Senate negotiator Rob Bradley of Fleming Island just released a host of reforms, but he's tamping down expectations. Bradley says his goal is rate stabilization, not a rate rollback.