© 2023 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Lawmakers Searching For A Workers Comp Cure


In the workers comp system, employees agree not to sue when they get hurt and their bosses agree to pay medical bills and lost wages. German Chancellor Otto von Bismark thought it would humanize the industrial revolution.

But in the early 2000's, Florida and a handful of other states went on a business friendly cost-cutting binge. Orlando attorney Geoff Bichler says injured workers were left out in the cold.

“It’s almost universal that when people come to us with injuries, they’re shocked with the paltry amount of benefits they receive and the limited amount of medical care and the limited amount of choice that they have with regard to that care.”

Bichler represents St. Petersburg firefighter Bradley Westphal, who sued when he lost coverage for his severely injured back after hitting a two-year cap. The Florida Supreme Court struck down the so-called “temporary total disability” portion of the law, but Justice Fred Lewis called the entire system a “charade.”

Bichler also represents Orlando Police Officer Gerry Realin, who was denied workers comp benefits for acute post traumatic stress disorder. Relin stood for hours in pools of human blood to remove bodies from the Pulse nightclub. Realin’s wife, Jessica, says he has night terrors and bouts of depression.

“Before this, he was always a practical joker. He didn’t take life too seriously. He was the life of the party. In fact, his haz-mat team would say that he was like the little brother that was always poking jokes and things like that.”

A National Public Radio and Pro Publica investigation last year found that the reforms saved employers millions, dropping rates in Florida from $3.42 per every $100 in wages to just $1.85.

But National Federation of Independent Businesses’ Bill Herrle says there’s one overriding reason insurance companies are about to get a 14.5 percent rate hike.

“This is about additional attorney fees in what is supposed to be a self-executing system.”

In April, Florida Justices struck down caps on attorney fees in the workers comp system, even though the system is supposed to discourage lawsuits. Bichler says  lawyers wouldn’t be necessary if insurance companies weren’t so quick to deny claims.

It’s too early to say how lawmakers will respond. Some lawmakers have promised to push for PTSD coverage for first responders. Associated Industries of Florida lobbyist Barney Bishop says insurance companies will probably ask to extend the law’s two-week deadline for deciding on a claim.

“The ability for that company to investigate all of those in a timely fashion and figure out which ones are legitimate and which ones are not, and which ones should be covered and which ones should not. I think there needs to be more time.

Bishop says he also expects a crackdown on prescribing addictive painkillers to injured workers as the state wrestles with an overdose epidemic.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.