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PIP reform in Florida looks challenging, even as Scott, Atwater urge its passage

11/16/2011

By: John Kennedy

Palm Beach Post

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater called on lawmakers Tuesday to revamp personal injury protection auto insurance, which critics say is costing Floridians an extra $1 billion a year because of fraud, suspect medical payments and legal expenses.

Insurance rates for the $10,000 PIP coverage, which state law requires of all Florida drivers, have spiked as much as 80 percent in some Miami and Tampa Bay-area neighborhoods between 2008 and 2010, according to state officials.

PIP insurance claims also are up 40 percent over that time even as accidents statewide have tumbled by 8 percent. Leaders say the disparity is at least partially caused by a rising number of staged accidents aimed at drawing insurance payouts.

Atwater turned to law enforcement officers flanking him Tuesday at a Capitol news conference and said, "We're going to get you some relief."

He said consumers also needed help. "They have been trying to swim in a pool of piranhas, and we've got to throw them a lifeline," Atwater said.

But Atwater, Scott and several lawmakers attending Tuesday's call for change acknowledged that there was no clear path to overhauling the PIP system.

Insurers, representatives of the hospital industry, lawyers and health care providers were gathered into a working group last month under state insurance consumer advocate Robin Westcott, but failed to agree on recommendations.

"They're all fighting for their part," Atwater said.

Now, it's legislators' turn.

"It's going to be a challenging bill to get passed," said Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, chairman of the House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee.

Florida's motor vehicle no-fault law requires drivers to have personal injury protection that provides $10,000 per person for medical bills, regardless of which driver is at fault.

Under PIP, insurance companies must pay claims within 30 days, or risk being liable to lawsuits to recover benefits. Insurers also can be held responsible for paying an accident victim's legal fees, adding thousands to settlement amounts.

Some insurance companies have recommended extending the current 30-day window, giving them enough time to investigate a claim. Other possible fixes considered by lawmakers include limits on the amount of rehabilitative care a PIP client can receive -- curbing what critics say is misuse by pain clinics, chiropractors and massage therapists.

Scott was among those saying he supported fixing PIP - not eliminating it outright. The Florida Hospital Association is among those advocating keeping the insurance mandate, with officials saying an increase in uninsured accident victims is certain if PIP was made optional.

"We've got to get at the cost drivers," said Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, a sponsor of one of several PIP bills (HB 119), filed for the legislative session beginning in January.

Scott and Atwater didn't endorse a single approach. But they offered an outline that urged lawmakers to enact stricter fraud protection and limits on lawsuits and patient services. In a Republican-led Legislature, where deregulation has been a steady theme, advocates want PIP more closely governed.

"It's going to put more money back in people's pockets, where it belongs," Boyd said.