A tough new law regulating auto-accident medical clinics was approved by Hillsborough County commissioners on Wednesday.
The ordinance is intended to reduce staged auto accidents and insurance fraud, though critics say it could shut down legitimate businesses. It was approved unanimously by commissioners after an hourlong public hearing, where supporters of the legislation far outnumbered opponents.
Melissa Snively, a State Farm insurance agent in Lithia, said fraudulent claims under the state's personal injury protection law have made Hillsborough one of the most expensive insurance markets in the country.
"Criminals have been bilking insurance companies for millions of dollars," she said.
The law requires clinics specializing in auto-accident medical or physical therapy treatment to be licensed and pay annual fees. Clinics also must have a medical director on staff and allow periodic inspections.
The county says the businesses being targeted fraudulently bill personal injury insurance providers for nonexistent injuries.
Cindy Barsa, who has operated clinics for 25 years with her husband, said the additional requirements and fees were overkill because state agencies already license and regulate these sites.
"This is a lot of expense for a lot of people," she said. "That should really be left to (the Agency for Health Care Administration) and medical boards to look at these places."
In other action, the commission voted Wednesday to demand repayment of $35,000 that, according to an audit, was spent inappropriately on a controversial Riverview community center. In total, the county put $2.5 million into the Regent center.
County leaders will discuss the repayment with Brandon Community Advantage Center, the nonprofit that built and runs the Regent, and Hillsborough Community College, which owns it now and operates classrooms there.
Discussions with HCC and the Brandon Community Advantage Center should also include attempts to create more public access to the events center, which has been one of the criticisms, commissioners said.
The Regent was built using a combination of $7 million in local, state and federal money. Commissioners agreed to ask the Joint Legislative Audit Committee in Tallahassee to review all the money spent on the project.
County audit director Daniel Pohto said some of the criticism about the project should be directed at county commissioners, who hurried the deal along when it was initially pitched and didn't pay enough attention.
Part of their responsibility was to ensure that when the deal went on a consent agenda, there was a review, he said. "I'm not trying to be critical. I'm just saying there's blame to go around."
Tia Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.