Senators start weighing workers' comp issues

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – 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.

"There's obviously a lot of interest on this issue, not just in this room but across the state --- many different interests and opinions on what it is that the state can be doing to try and bring some sort of balance to the workers' compensation market and insurance rates," Senate Banking and Insurance Chairwoman Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said Tuesday as the committee took up the issue.

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.

Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, called the renewed debate a "golden opportunity to fix a really big injustice that happened back in 2003." He said lawmakers should take a comprehensive approach to overhauling the system.

"The bottom line is that the system right now is imbalanced," Templin said. "Injured workers are not being made whole. They're not getting back to work."

But major business groups, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and the National Federation of Independent Business, remain focused on trying to limit attorneys' fees that they say drive up insurance costs.

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.

Carolyn Johnson, a lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, told the committee Tuesday that her business group thinks judges should have discretion in awarding fees in some cases but that it should be limited to "extreme circumstances."

"We believe that attorneys' fees should continue to be tied to the amount of benefits received by the injured worker," Johnson said.

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.

But some lawmakers and critics of the process questioned Tuesday whether the state should move to a different type of system that they suggested could lead to more competition.