TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott waited until the 59th day of the legislative session to issue critical comments Thursday about the Senate's approach to curb auto-accident fraud.
"The Senate bill, it seems like it's been written by special interest," Scott said in Web video released by the Florida Chamber of Commerce on Thursday morning. "The Senate bill is not going to reduce the fraud at all. The House bill does, so we've got to focus on that."
Scott already had said he preferred the House plan for personal injury protection reform, but he had said little about opposing the Senate version — a signal that he just wanted something to pass. Now, his comments set up a last-minute showdown, or set the stage for a PIP special session.
The governor, Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said the Senate's version of HB 119 needs additional limits on lawyer fees and new restrictions on the types of medical providers that can evaluate people injured in an auto accident. Without those changes, they said, car insurance premiums won't go down.
McCarty said the Senate's PIP fix might not be a fix at all — and it could bankrupt some auto insurers.
"There are some provisions in the Senate bill that we fear are going to exacerbate the problem," he said.
Opponents of the House proposal call it a wish list for insurers. They accuse the governor of using scare tactics and misinformation to characterize the Senate proposal as inferior to the House's.
"What's really interesting is the governor and insurance commissioner are becoming like voices for the insurance industry as opposed to the consumers," South Florida trial lawyer David Kuczenski said.
He spent Thursday walking the halls of the Capitol, urging senators to stand firm on their position.
Reforming PIP was one of Scott's main priorities this legislative session. Increases in staged accidents, fraudulent claims and litigation have caused premiums to skyrocket, he says. The Office of the Insurance's consumer advocate said Thursday that PIP costs in Florida increased by 20 percent in 2011, highlighting the need for reforms.
But time is running short.
The House is scheduled to take up PIP today, the final day of the session, and may approve some amendments before kicking the issue back to the Senate. For example, the House could agree to allow chiropractors to perform follow-up care or remove its hard caps on attorney fees.
In turn, the governor wants the Senate to remove a provision that allows judges to boost fees awarded to attorneys. Others are pushing the Senate to prevent chiropractors from performing initial evaluations.
But some senators said they won't back down, noting the legislation sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, passed the chamber on a unanimous vote.
"I believe that Sen. Negron and those that worked on the PIP reform did an excellent job in passing legislation that No. 1, attacks the fraud that is rampant in the state of Florida but at the same time protects the providers in the medical community and it also protects the legitimately injured person," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
Scott has said that if the two chambers can't reach an agreement before session ends, he may call them back for a special session.
House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West, said the governor will lean hard on Republican senators in hopes they might agree to the changes he requests. But the chamber has an unpredictable, independent streak, Saunders said.
"Part of their problem is they got a lot of term-limited senators that don't really care anymore and they can't tell them how to vote," Saunders said.