PIP bill slated for contentious vote in Senate on Wednesday

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A controversial overhaul of Florida’s no-fault insurance system is slated for a full Senate vote on Wednesday after muscling through a contentious session Tuesday that made significant changes, and raised the temperature in the usually staid chamber, reports Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida

Following hours of amending, questions and debate, the chamber gave preliminary approval to changes that critics say don’t go far enough and even backers acknowledge may be a bit far from a competing House plan for lawmakers to reach agreement by the end of session.

But the Senate sponsor defended the effort Tuesday, saying despite numerous stops and starts and much discord, the bill would be a step toward lowering personal injury protection premiums, which backers say are inflated by rampant fraud.

“We’re doing a lot of things to make things better,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “We expect premiums to reflect that.”

As amended, the Senate plan would require patients seeking PIP coverage for treatment to do so within 14 days of an accident. The House plan requires that treatment be sought in seven days. The Senate bill would allow patients to see their personal physician or go to an emergency room for care, a less restrictive provision then found in the House companion.

The bill also prohibits massage therapists and acupuncturists from being reimbursed under PIP, a $10,000 policy set up in the 1970s to provide for immediate medical coverage regardless of fault.

Insurers would be on the hook to pass savings on to policyholders, An amendment by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, would require insurers to reduce rates by 25 percent unless they could prove the reforms did not yield such substantial savings.

Unlike its House companion, the Senate plan does not place caps on attorney fees.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, managed to get the Senate to pass an amendment opposed by the Senate’s leadership that would allow attorneys to seek fee multipliers for complex cases, though they must justify the additional fees. The contentious amendment was approved on a 24-15 vote.

A motion later to reconsider that amendment – which Diaz de la Portilla described as a “bare-knuckle” political move to change votes – was approved, but the Senate still approved his amendment.

Numerous attempts to expand the pool of acceptable treatment to include massage therapists, acupuncturists and chiropractors were largely beaten back, with backers saying such additions would raise costs for coverage by providing services that are needed immediately after a crash.

“Every time you add more pounds ballast to this boat there is more of a risk that more water will slip over the side,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “If we really want PIP reform, we have to have a streamlined bill that will reduce costs.”

The measure is a top priority for Gov. Rick Scott, who reiterated Tuesday that the bill is a must-pass as far as he is concerned. There has been talk that he might call lawmakers back into special session to get it done if the Legislature fails to pass something by the end of the regular session on Friday. Asked Tuesday whether he would do that if it doesn’t pass, Scott said he would wait until Friday to make that decision.

With a Senate vote expected as soon as Wednesday the measure will then go to the House, though both sides will continue to negotiate differences behind closed doors.

“If you look at the big picture… there is a steady movement toward a principled middle ground,” Negron said. “I think that is due to work of Gov. Scott and CFO (Jeff) Atwater and a genuine interest in the House and the Senate to get this done right. I think we’re almost there. “

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.