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Lawmakers fail to reach deal on workers' comp

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Tangled in a battle about attorney fees, Florida lawmakers could not reach agreement Friday on a bill aimed at holding down workers' compensation insurance rates.

The House and Senate swapped proposals Friday, the last scheduled day of the annual legislative session, but could not resolve differences after weeks of heavy lobbying by business groups, plaintiffs' lawyers and labor unions. Lawmakers will meet again Monday to pass a budget but will not take up issues unrelated to the spending plan.

House Insurance & Banking Chairman Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, told House members during an afternoon debate that lawmakers were “trying to get across the finish line” on the workers' compensation issue.

“Every small business, every business owner in the state is watching what we do,” said Burgess, who spearheaded the House's proposal (HB 7085).

But critics said a limit on attorney fees in the House bill could prevent injured workers from having adequate legal representation in disputes with insurance companies.

“The House bill will absolutely restrict the access to courts,” said Rep. Sean Shaw, a Tampa Democrat who is a former state insurance consumer advocate.

While workers' compensation drew the most attention, two other major insurance issues also fizzled as the session ended.

Lawmakers did not move forward with a proposal to eliminate the state's no-fault auto insurance system. Also, they did not address an issue known as “assignment of benefits” that property insurers blame for increased homeowners' rates.

The workers' compensation issue has been high-profile since last spring, when the Florida Supreme Court found two parts of the system unconstitutional. One of the rulings tossed out strict limits on fees paid to attorneys for injured workers.

Those rulings played a key role in state regulators later approving a 14.5 percent increase in workers' compensation insurance rates. That hike started taking effect in December.

Business groups blame attorney fees for driving up costs in the workers' compensation system and focused heavily on trying to get lawmakers to curb the effects of the Supreme Court's fee ruling. But they ran into opposition from plaintiffs' attorneys and labor unions, who argued that fee limits hurt workers --- and that lawmakers should look to increase benefits for people injured on the job.

The House proposed capping attorney fees at a maximum of $150 an hour, while the Senate proposed $250 an hour. In a last-ditch bid for an agreement, the House upped its proposal to $180 an hour, but the Senate adjourned Friday night without considering it.

Along with the fee issues, senators also balked at House proposals to cut reimbursements to hospitals that provide outpatient treatment to injured workers.