By: Lloyd Dunkelberger
TALLAHASSEE | With Gov. Rick Scott throwing his political weight behind it, a move to revamp Florida's no-fault auto insurance program will be pushed to the forefront of the 2012 Legislature.
But with a similar bill failing in 2011, there are no guarantees that proponents of changing the personal injury protection (PIP) law will be any more successful next year as it will pit the governor, insurance companies and top lawmakers against an equally powerful coalition including trial lawyers, doctors and other health-care providers.
"It's going to be a war," said Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, chairman of the House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee, who appeared with Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater at a press conference Tuesday. "A lot of things in there are going to be controversial."
Nelson, Scott, Atwater and other legislators said they will make it a priority to change the PIP system, contending it is rife with fraud, litigation and the overuse of medical treatments that cost consumers some $900 million in premiums each year.
But the challenge will be balancing changes against the argument that limiting PIP will hurt legitimate accident victims and deny them the right to medical treatments.
While insurance companies may push for the changes, they will be met by the trial lawyers, doctors, chiropractors and others who are likely to contend the changes are going too far.
"It's a $900 million tax on consumers," said Scott, who for the last two weeks has traveled across the state holding hearings on the PIP problem.
Scott and Atwater cited figures from the state Office of Insurance Regulation that showed as the number of Florida drivers has remained largely stable and crashes have declined since 2006, the number of PIP claims has increased by 28 percent. And payments on PIP claims have increased by 66 percent.
"Crashes are down. Costs are up. It makes absolutely no sense," Scott said. "People are just taking advantage of this and it's costing everybody money."
Atwater, a former Senate president, said the focus of the legislation will be aimed at reducing "the burdensome cost of insurance on Florida's drivers."
"They have been trying to swim in a pool of piranhas and we're going to throw them a lifeline," Atwater said.
PIP, which requires Florida motorists to carry $10,000 of coverage, was designed as a no-fault insurance system to provide immediate care to minor accident victims.
But Atwater said the escalating PIP costs have resulted in premium increases for a typical 40-year-old driver with an unblemished driving record to rise by more than 80 percent since 2008 in cities like Miami and Tampa. He said the rates have similarly skyrocketed in smaller communities.
"It's everywhere," he said.
But finding agreement on how to deal with the problem has stymied state officials.
Robin Westcott, the state's insurance consumer advocate, led a working group over summer that included insurance companies, health care providers, lawyers, law enforcement officials and others involved in the system.
Atwater said to no one's surprise, the group could not reach a consensus on changes.
"They're all fighting for their part of the food table," Atwater said. "It's going to stop."
Although he and Scott did not back a specific bill, they outlined major areas where they expect lawmakers to act, including preventing fraud, limiting lawsuits, curbing medical procedures and fees and gathering more data on the system.
In the House's preliminary bill (HB 119), lawmakers are already looking at many of those issues — but whether they will survive the 60-day session that begins in January is unclear.
"The providers that provide that service are not going to be happy," said Nelson, whose committee will hold a workshop on the House bill today that limits attorney's fees, increases regulation of health-care clinics and caps certain fees and services.
"It's not a bill that everybody is going to say yes, yes, yes," Nelson said. "All the providers will be out there trying to protect their turf. The chiros won't like it; the docs won't like it; the trial attorneys won't like it."
But he also said it would put pressure on the insurance companies by making it more difficult to raise their rates, while encouraging them to cut their rates if the reforms hold down costs.
"It will be good for the consumer," he said.
Although a PIP bill failed in 2011 session because of those competing interests, Nelson said lawmakers can follow the model of the 2003 reform of the state's workers' compensation laws. It also pitted many of the same interest groups against each other, as lawmakers moved to impose limits on lawsuits and medical services related to on-the-job injuries.
"It was a brutal battle but ultimately we reduced workers' comp rates by 60 percent," he said.