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Health News Florida

Workers’ Comp Rate Hike Continues Despite Legal Squabbles

A state appeals court Monday said an increase in workers' compensation insurance rates will continue amid a legal battle about whether Florida's Sunshine Law was violated during the rate-making process.

The 1st District Court of Appeal approved a stay of a Nov. 23 ruling in which Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers said the 14.5 percent rate increase should be rejected because of Sunshine Law violations. The stay will remain in place while the appeals court considers appeals of Gievers' Sunshine Law ruling.

With businesses gradually getting hit with the rate hikes starting Dec. 1, the appeals court said it will consider the appeal on an "expedited" basis. But it appears a ruling on the appeal will not come until February at the earliest, as the court set a Feb. 2 deadline for filing final briefs.

The state and the National Council on Compensation Insurance, an organization that files rate proposals for workers' compensation insurers, appealed Gievers' ruling. The appeals court approved a temporary stay that allowed the rate hikes to take effect Dec. 1 and then followed up in Monday's order to keep the stay in place.

A three-judge panel, made up of Chief Judge Clay Roberts and judges Brad Thomas and Lori Rowe, did not explain their reasoning for approving the stay.

In the Nov. 23 ruling, Gievers said, in part, that the National Council on Compensation Insurance, commonly known as NCCI, did not comply with legal requirements about holding public meetings during its deliberations on the hike. Also, she wrote that the organization held improper closed-door meetings with staff members of the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.

James F. Fee Jr., a Miami attorney who represents injured workers, filed the lawsuit Aug. 10, as insurance regulators were considering an NCCI proposal to raise rates by 19.6 percent. The Office of Insurance Regulation later required that the proposal be scaled back, and the 14.5 percent hike was approved in October.

NCCI issued a statement late Monday saying it was pleased with the appeals court's decision to extend the stay while considering the Sunshine Law issues.

The rate hike stems largely from two Florida Supreme Court rulings this year that found parts of the workers' compensation system unconstitutional. The most-prominent ruling rejected strict limits on fees that can be paid to attorneys who represent injured workers.

The rulings and the rate hike are expected to lead to workers' compensation insurance being one of the biggest issues of the 2017 legislative session. A key battleground will be attorneys' fees, with business groups arguing that fees drive up insurance costs. Meanwhile, attorneys for injured workers blame the insurance industry for higher rates.

Copyright 2016 Health News Florida