Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater on Tuesday called for a ban on accident lawyer referral services, like 1-800-ASK-GARY and 411-PAIN, which have proliferated on television, Facebook and other media in recent years.
Atwater's Department of Financial Services has been investigating referral services for several years, examining whether close ties among for-profit referral services, lawyers and pain clinics have led to fraudulent over-treatment of accident victims that drives up the cost of auto insurance.
"My department has received many confidential tips regarding the incestuous interactions between the participants in these referral services,'' Atwater wrote in a letter to Scott Hawkins, president of the Florida Bar.
"I am appalled by the fact that these individuals, disguised as legitimate referral services, have been able to prey on society for so long.''
Atwater did not name any specific referral service, but urged the Florida Bar to ban all of them. The Bar has no regulatory authority over pain clinics or referral services but can forbid lawyers from any dealings with them.
A referral service sends accident victims to lawyers who pay the service a monthly fee and sometimes refer their clients to pain clinics owned by or associated with those running the referral service.
This sets up a "quid pro quo environment,'' Atwater told the St. Petersburg Times. Lawyers might not send clients where they get the best treatment, Atwater said, but to clinics associated with the referral service.
For example, Ask Gary was founded by Sarasota chiropractor Gary Kompothecras, who is also associated with a string of for-profit clinics that treat accident victims. Bar records show that some of Tampa Bay's best-know litigation firms pay Ask Gary for referrals.
"I'm not making any particular allegations against the players,'' Atwater said, "but you cannot help but question the potential for a quid pro quo between the treating agency and the attorneys that are sending them the business.''
Ask Gary attorney Greg Zitani said Atwater's move is part of an attack by the insurance industry, which is "more concerned with their profits than with the health care needs of the people of Florida.''
Lawyers who pay Ask Gary for referrals sometimes refer clients to other clinics, Zitani said. "We would welcome more regulation to eliminate fraud and unethical behavior in our industry,'' Zitani said in a statement.
Florida has about 70 auto accident referral services, including some not registered with the Bar, which is studying whether new rules are needed. Recommendations are expected next year.
Bar president Scott Hawkins did not comment. Neither did Robert Lewin, founder of 411-PAIN, a South Florida chain that has auto accident clinics in the Tampa Bay area.
Meanwhile, Atwater and Gov. Rick Scott called on legislators to reform Florida's no-fault auto insurance system, in which every driver must carry at least $10,000 in Personal Injury Protection insurance. Clinics, doctors and hospitals use that money to treat victims, regardless of who is at fault.
Florida has about the same number of drivers and fewer crashes since 2006, yet payment on PIP claims rose 66 percent, Scott and Atwater said. Some of the increase is from staged accidents. PIP lawsuits have increased 387 percent in that time.
"Regrettably, our state's auto insurance system has been taken over by a circling pool of piranha — fraud clinics, lawyer referral services and organized crime,'' Atwater said in a statement.
If the Bar does not ban lawyer referral services, Atwater said the Legislature should act.