Friday, December 15, 2017
News Roundup

Florida lawmakers consider new auto insurance system. Here's who wins, loses with changes.

TALLAHASSEE — Most Florida drivers would see small savings with their auto insurance, but those who carry just the minimum amount of coverage, either by choice or because they can't afford more, would pay much higher rates under two proposals gaining traction in the Legislature.

Under a House plan, the vast majority of drivers who already pay for bodily injury coverage would see their bills drop by an average of $81 a year, or $6.67 a month.

That same plan, however, would drive up costs by an average of $250 a year for those who carry only the bare minimum of insurance required by law. Under a Senate plan, these drivers would pay nearly $323 more a year.

The costs would rise higher in Tampa Bay. In Hillsborough County, getting car insurance would cost $308 more on average for those who have the bare minimum now, according to a statewide report commissioned by the state's Office of Insurance Regulation. In Pinellas, that would become a $385 annual increase.

Rates vary depending on a county's traffic density, percentage of uninsured drivers and accident rates.

"If you take the folks who are paying the least, because that is all they can afford, these are the people who are going to see increased rates," state Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville, told the Times/Herald.

Currently, drivers and passengers get car damages and personal injury protection, or PIP, paid for up to $10,000, no matter who is at fault in an accident. Drivers have to pay an additional cost to insurance companies to pay for bodily injuries, which covers them if they are at fault.

While PIP is required, coverage for bodily injury is not.

The insurance industry is pushing to scrap PIP and instead require all motorists to carry coverage that includes bodily injury if they are at fault. Insurance companies would save millions in what they say are often questionable medical injury claims they get stuck paying even when someone is at fault for causing the accident. They say that then forces them to pass on rate increases to consumers. A House bill (HB 1063) has already cleared its first hearing and the Senate proposal (SB 1768) will be considered during a Banking and Insurance Committee hearing Monday.

But the bill has major hurdles to overcome. Doctors and hospitals are girding for a fight if the state eliminates mandatory coverage for PIP. Eliminating PIP would mean that the $10,000 drivers now get paid toward medical costs though their insurers might not be there for them to pay for injured drivers. That could leave hospitals and doctors with more unpaid bills to collect.

Under both the initial House and Senate proposals, Florida would instead require that drivers carry enough bodily injury coverage to pay $25,000 of injuries to another person, and $50,000 of injuries to two or more people. Most drivers in Florida — more than 90 percent of drivers — already have that type of coverage or better.

While they concede that the poor and those who just want to have less insurance coverage will have to pay more, those backing the bill say it's unavoidable when ensuring that everyone has adequate coverage on the roads, especially if they cause an accident.

"What we are saying, when people operate a vehicle on the road in Florida, you are operating a dangerous instrument that can cause significant bodily harm and damage," said Rep. Erin Grall, a Vero Beach Republican who is leading the debate in the House. "And there is a minimum threshold of coverage that our residents should have to have."

Grall emphasized that nearly 95 percent of drivers who have adequate auto insurance will save money on premiums. She said it was no more than 7 percent of the population that cuts corners by not paying for bodily injury coverage. They are the ones who would face the rate increases, she said.

No one wants to stick it to those of less means, said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa. But he said many drivers currently don't have enough insurance to cover damages if they are at fault.

"Rates for them would have to go up under any system," Lee said.

State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Hernando Republican who is also chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said that if the state makes it too expensive, more will try to just go without coverage. He said that would put more uninsured drivers on the road in a state that already has one of the highest percentages of uninsured drivers in America. Ingoglia and Fant both voted against Grall's bill in a committee earlier this week.

While parts of the House and the Senate proposals are similar in ending PIP, Lee's bill differs in a big way. Lee proposes that if Florida does away with PIP coverage, it has to have some system in place to help hospitals and doctors get some costs paid. He wants insurance policies to have a mandatory $5,000 that would insure health care providers after an accident. Otherwise, he said, hospitals will see a major cost shift to them, which could result in higher health insurance rates.

But Grall and House leaders are adamant that their bill won't include this added provision. Grall said it is up to private insurers to offer that coverage and people to buy it on their own.

Completely ending PIP is a dramatic change after decades of trying to revise PIP, which was intended to keep auto accidents from clogging up the legal system. The $10,000 of medical coverage has been the same since 1979.

The system has invited fraud, in which people stage accidents to claim injuries to get access to the $10,000 that each person injured in an accident can receive. In 2012, the Legislature did a major rewrite of the law to cut down on fraud. After that reform, PIP rates in Florida dropped 14 percent. But since 2015, the rates have climbed once again.

Grall said that with each reform, those who want to abuse the system find new ways to do it. Philosophically, she said, the state has to move from a no-fault system to one that relies on "personal responsibility."

"I would say the original premise of PIP has in fact failed," Grall said.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at [email protected] Follow @JeremySWallace.

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