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Senators Begin Considering Workers’ Comp Issues

The battle lines are being drawn. Or maybe they never went away. But Florida senators Tuesday got a taste of the debate that will play out in the coming months among business, legal and labor groups as the Legislature looks at revamping the workers' compensation insurance system.

For business groups, the issue is about too much money going to attorneys who represent injured workers. For workers' attorneys, the issue is about insurers not properly paying claims. And for labor unions, the issue is about a system that has slashed benefits for people hurt on the job.

The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee began plunging into the issue Tuesday, a little more than two months after state regulators approved a 14.5 percent increase in workers' compensation insurance rates. That hike — largely fueled by two Florida Supreme court rulings that found parts of the workers' compensation system unconstitutional — has spurred business groups to lobby for changes aimed at holding down rates.

But changing workers' compensation laws during the 2017 legislative session will be politically and legally complex, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, signaled this week he wants to take a broad look at the system.

The last major overhaul of the system took place in 2003, as Florida businesses grappled with some of the highest workers' compensation insurance rates in the county. The Republican-dominated Legislature and then-Gov. Jeb Bush approved changes that included reducing benefits and strictly limiting fees for attorneys representing injured workers — over the objections of the attorneys and labor groups.

But the Supreme Court this year ruled that strict limits on attorneys' fees were unconstitutional and also tossed out a restriction on benefits in the case of a St. Petersburg firefighter injured on the job. Along with helping lead to the 14.5 percent rate increase, those decisions have refueled debate about key issues in the 2003 law.

State law has tied fees for workers' attorneys to the amounts of benefits recovered in cases. But the Supreme Court in April found the limits unconstitutional in a case in which an attorney was awarded the equivalent of $1.53 an hour.

While attorneys' fees and worker benefits have long been lightning-rod issues, at least some senators also appear to want to look at how workers' compensation rates are proposed and approved.

Florida uses a process in which the National Council on Compensation Insurance makes a rate filing for all workers' compensation insurers in the state. State regulators then can approve the proposed rates or require changes.

 

Copyright 2016 Health News Florida