Overhauling Workers' Comp A Heavy Lift
Lawmakers are trying to overhaul Florida’s beleaguered workers’ compensation system, but unions, legal experts and employer groups aren’t happy.
Senate leaders have a knack for turning to Republican Senator Rob Bradley when it comes to tackling complex and controversial issues. So when businesses where hit in December with a 14.5 percent increase in workers’ comp insurance rates, the Fleming Island attorney was a natural go-to.
But it’s clear from the powerful opponents who lined up against his bill that Bradley will need every ounce of his diplomatic skills. Here’s Senator Anitere Flores, who chairs the Banking and Insurance Committee.
“Jim McConaughey with Associated Industries of Florida, they are waiving against the bill; Tom Stahl, with Florida United Business Association, is waiving against the bill; Tim Nungesser with National Federation of Independent Business, they are waiving against the bill; Carolyn Johnson, with the Florida Chamber of Commerce, they are waiving against the bill…”
The list goes on to include almost every major business and employer group in Florida. When he learned that even the Florida Poultry Federation is against him, Bradley couldn’t resist.
“ You know, I really thought I had the poultry association on lockdown."
The rate increase is tied directly to Supreme Court decisions that struck down key provisions of 13-year-old, business friendly reforms demanded by then Governor Jeb Bush. Business groups tie most of the rate increase to the loss of a cap on attorney fees, a decision known as “Castellanos.”
Business groups want injured workers to pay their own attorney fees. Bradley’s bill merely sets a $250-an-hour maximum rate. He says the court left lawmakers no choice.
“I think Castellanos, whether you agree with the decision or not, set forth some pretty clear guiderails. Any bill that is produced out of the Senate is going to respect those guiderails.”
Unions are also against the bill. Bradley is proposing to increase payments for something called temporary complete disability from 140 weeks to 260 weeks. But AFL-CIO’s Rich Templin says Bradley’s bill doesn’t go far enough to protect injured workers.
Templin argues injured workers, for too long, have been forced to see doctors chosen by insurance companies.
“No worker should be forced to abandon the doctor and the other care providers they know, and who know them, just so that an insurance company can save money.”
Bradley promised the bill is still a work in progress and that he would continue negotiating with all the stakeholders. His proposal would also change the rate-setting process, giving insurance companies more leeway to compete on prices.
The National Council on Compensation Insurance studied Bradley’s proposal and determined it would decrease rates by 3 percent and save 109 million dollars. Bradley insists he’s not trying to favor one side or the other.
“We are responding to the decisions that have come out, in this bill, we are improving the efficiency of the system, by this bill, we’re holding down costs by this bill, and we had an independent review of it.”
Bradley is also running a second bill that would shield the names of people who file workers’ comp claims from public records laws. Business groups support the idea because it could make it harder for attorneys to recruit clients for lawsuits.
“Attorneys that have pride in our profession, alright, bristle at the idea of members of our profession, reaching out and sending mail, to people that have been injured, trying to get them to sign up.”
Bradley’s bills passed the committee. But at the half-way point of the session, when most energy turns to budget negotiations, it’s not clear if there will be enough time to resolve differences with a competing House proposal.
Last month, Florida Chamber of Commerce executive vice president David Hart told Tallahassee business leaders that worker’s comp was the biggest issue of the session. He wasn’t optimistic lawmakers could get the job done on time.
“I’ve been involved in every workers’ comp battle in the Legislature for approaching 25 or 30 years and sadly, the Legislature has never been able to do a major workers’ comp reform if it wasn’t done in a special session.”