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Politics / Issues

Capitol: Workman's Comp, Trauma Centers

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In an issue that is dividing major business groups and the hospital industry, a House panel Wednesday approved a proposal (HB 1351) that would change the way hospitals are paid for treating workers-compensation insurance patients.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Stone, R-Ocala, could save about $200 million for the workers-compensation system, which supporters say could lead to lower insurance costs for employers.

But Florida Hospital Association General Counsel Bill Bell questioned the need for the bill and said the workers-compensation cuts would come on top of other, already-approved cuts in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

"In this environment, why cut hospital payments?" Bell said to members of the House Insurance & Banking Subcommittee, which voted 8-4 to approve the bill.

But the measure has the support of many of the state's most-influential business groups. Florida Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Carolyn Johnson said it is important to address hospital payments that are a cost driver in the workers-compensation system.

The bill would tie payments for treating workers-compensation patients to rates paid by Medicare. The payments currently are calculated in other ways. As an example, payments for outpatient services are based on what are known in the hospital industry as "usual and customary charges."

Also in the Capitol: 

The Florida Department of Health faces legal challenges to a new proposal aimed at resolving long-running battles about the approval of trauma centers.

UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Tampa General Hospital, The Public Health Trust of Miami-Dade County, Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa and Memorial Regional Hospital in Broward County filed petitions this month seeking to block a proposed trauma-care rule that the department released in February.

The cases, filed in the state Division of Administrative Hearings, come after nearly three years of litigation about the department's approval of trauma facilities. That litigation stemmed from the department's approval in 2011 and 2012 of trauma centers at hospitals in Manatee, Pasco, Marion and Clay counties. All of those hospitals are part of the HCA health-care chain and faced opposition from other hospitals that have operated trauma centers for years.

An administrative law judge and the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that the department used an invalid rule in giving those approvals, which spurred the department to draw up a new proposed rule.

Under the proposal, the department would take into consideration factors such as population, transport times and community support in determining whether to approve trauma centers.

But the challenges, which have been consolidated into one case, contend the proposed rule does not comply with state law. Administrative Law Judge R. Bruce McKibben last week scheduled a hearing to start March 31, though St. Joseph's filed a request Wednesday for a continuance until the week of April 21 because of a large number of witnesses and documents involved in the case, according to filings in the Division of Administrative Hearings.

The challenges also come as lawmakers consider heavily lobbied bills that would deal with the approval of trauma centers.

And, Florida regulators are warning consumers to be cautious of digital currency in the wake of the bankruptcy of one of the biggest international bitcoin exchanges, Mt. Gox.

The Florida Office of Financial Regulation issued a consumer alert this week to highlight the potential risks of purchasing, investing in and exchanging such virtual and crypto-currencies. The state agency says the currencies offer little security for deposits and have the potential for wide fluctuations in value in short periods of time and for a lack of consumer protections.

"Virtual currency is not guaranteed with protection, while funds held by U.S. banks and credit unions are insured," the state advisory said.

Bitcoin proponents have maintained that the digital currency is faster and cheaper than other exchange and credit-card programs, and that credit-card data is equally subject to theft.

The state advisory notes that regulations for virtual currencies haven't been thoroughly developed and that the Internal Revenue Service has yet to provide guidance on the tax implications concerning virtual currencies.