By: Marissa Lang
St. Petersburg Times
TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott didn't mince words about auto insurance fraud during a discussion among politicians and citizens Wednesday:
"We have to do something about this," he said. "We have to get rid of fraud."
He said he's looking to Hillsborough County for ideas on how to go about tackling it.
Sitting among citizens, county officials and law enforcement officers who have made it their goal to crack down on insurance fraud, Scott and Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater declared their intent to overhaul Florida's Personal Injury Protection law in the 2012 legislative session by using Hillsborough efforts as inspiration.
"Regrettably, you had to go first," Atwater said. "Now, let us export the good work of Tampa Bay and get this burden off the back of all Floridians."
After years at the top worst spot, Hillsborough County is now No. 2 in the state for the number of staged car crashes each year. Nationwide, Florida holds two of the top three worst positions: Miami comes in second, behind Brooklyn, NY, and Hillsborough County is third.
Officials attributed the drop in the number of cases here to the county battling PIP fraud for the past two years.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has issued more than 150 criminal charges in PIP fraud cases and made 123 arrests, officials said. In the last 15 months, investigators have tackled 273 cases, they said.
In addition, the County Commission passed an ordinance in September that requires medical and rehabilitation clinics to have a designated physician's name on the clinic's bank accounts and insurance policies. The ordinance requires that the physician must work at the facility, which closes a loophole that exempts clinics from certain license regulations when they have a physician's name on the business application.
And that's not the only loophole fraudulent insurance claimers have taken advantage of.
All drivers registered in Florida must carry "no fault" insurance, which allows for up to $10,000 in medical care for injuries sustained in a car crash, no matter whose fault the wreck is.
"The no-fault system was put in place so people could get care," said Insurance Consumer Advocate Robin Westcott, who has led a working group studying the increases in paid losses under the "no fault" PIP system.
So scammers choreograph fake crashes in which they recruit "victims" to go to fake clinics, which bill insurance companies the maximum $10,000 allowed.
"Do we really want to give people this power, this ability to manipulate the system?" Westcott asked.
Although the number of roadway collisions in Florida has remained largely stagnant since 2004, Scott said, the cost of insurance has "skyrocketed."
This is, in part, because the cost of fraud is ultimately paid by policyholders.
The cost of PIP fraud in Florida has totaled $853 million since 2008, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Insurance companies have lost $20 million in Hillsborough County alone, officials said.
Several Hillsborough residents who attended Wednesday's discussion with the governor said criminals' ability to capitalize on the system frightens them.
"The financial aspect cuts and hurts, but more so, just the safety of our citizens should be a priority," said Perry Smead, 33, of Sefner. "Sometimes innocent people are targeted. It makes me worry for my family."
Frustrated with sky-high insurance costs, Austin R. Curry said the Legislature should institute mandatory incarceration and license suspension for committing PIP fraud.
"We're paying for this," said Curry, a retiree who serves as the director for an advocacy group for the elderly. "This is directly impacting our budget. It's organized crime. It's got to be stomped out."
Curry demanded Scott promise he would do something to stop it. The governor obliged.
"We're working on what we think the right answer for Florida might be," the governor said.
He has said he would support drivers' ability to choose whether they want PIP as part of their auto insurance.
The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America has advocated allotting more time to investigate suspicious claims, capping attorney fees, allowing private companies to inspect medical clinics and limiting medical treatments.