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Big-money fight ties up budget talks

TALLAHASSEE — In the opening days of the lawmaking session, two low-profile South Florida doctors helped funnel $70,000 to politicians and political groups, bringing their total contributions to an eye-opening $3 million in just one year.

In the next two days, as lawmakers hammer out the state budget, it will become clear if Drs. Paul Zimmerman and Gerald Glass will get a return on their political investments.

The two doctors are the founders of a Miramar-based company called Automated Healthcare Solutions, which sells software that workers compensation doctors use to dispense medications in their offices.

But that profitable practice could be undermined by a little-debated provision slipped into an under-the-radar Senate budget bill at the behest of the insurance lobby, which says doctors who dispense in-house are driving up the workers compensation costs.

The dispute is just one example of how the agendas of special interests crop up with little discussion and tie up state lawmakers as they try to write the state budget.

The workers comp language doesn't exist in the House, where the political committees run by House Speaker Dean Cannon and budget chief Denise Grimsley each received $10,000 from Automated Health Care Solutions just before the start of the lawmaking session, when fundraising is banned.

Why did the doctors contribute so much?

"Because I'm a nice person," smiled Grimsley, a soft-spoken Sebring Republican who's one of the most well-liked legislators in the Capitol.

The president of Automated Health Care Solutions, David Bowen, said he couldn't comment on the political contributions authorized by Zimmerman and Glass, who couldn't be reached concerning the donations they've made through a dozen companies.

"You would have to ask them about their contributions," Bowen said when asked last month.

The workers compensation dispute is just one sticking point in budget talks between the House and Senate. Legislators are reconciling their different budgets to ensure an on-time Friday finish to the two-month legislative session.

Legislators have yet to agree on big parts of the $29 billion health budget, including how much to cut from nursing homes, hospitals and programs for the developmentally disabled and the severely ill.

Like any down-to-the-wire issue, the workers comp fight is heavily lobbied. Associated Industries of Florida, funded by insurance and other big businesses, supports the legislation. Automated Healthcare Solutions is represented by Brian Ballard, a top ally of Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist, who vetoed the legislation last year after it appeared on the last day of session.

Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos had planned to override the Crist veto, but they reversed course in the fall in consultation with Scott.

The legislation would ensure that physicians who dispense drugs in-house are treated just like pharmacies. That would limit their reimbursements to the average wholesale price of a drug plus $4.18. Right now, physicians who dispense in their offices can charge more money because they buy their drugs in bulk, which can change the average wholesale price of the drug.

If the legislation passes, doctors can't make extra money by dispensing in office. So they'll be less likely to buy Automated Healthcare Solutions' software, which helps doctors manage patients, track drug prescriptions and file claims.

This year, the legislation cropped up in a tough-to-amend budget bill pushed by Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla. He also had a standalone bill on the issue, but he said Haridopolos' office asked that he not bring it up for a vote.

"I don't remember who told me," Hays said. "I'm just doing what I was told."

Associated Industries of Florida says the legislation will save the workers compensation system $62 million.

But Automated Healthcare Solutions says there won't be much of a savings at all. Its public relations team says patients will be less likely to take medications, slowing their recovery and driving up the cost of treatment.

Ron Sachs, a spokesman for the company, said workers comp rates have declined over the years, so the issue of in-house dispensing isn't much of a problem. He said insurers and pharmacy companies are using legislation to remove a competitor.

"They are pushing this bill in a money and power grab that puts government in between the doctors and their patients," Sachs said.

Sachs couldn't comment on the political contributions from the companies of doctors Zimmerman and Glass, who have given more than $1 million to the Republican Party of Florida, $615,000 to a committee once controlled by Haridopolos, $610,000 to two committees linked to Cannon, $295,000 to Scott's political committee, $60,000 to the Florida Democratic Party and $45,000 to a committee that backed Crist.

Tom Koval, general counsel for FCCI insurance, said the doctors are unfairly making money and using it to influence the process. "This is all about making sure they protect a lucrative business," he said.

Big-money fight ties up budget talks 04/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 30, 2011 10:26pm]
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