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Ruling all but ends Hillsborough law targeting PIP fraud

TAMPA — An appellate court has effectively ended Hillsborough County's attempt to regulate clinics that law enforcement officials say enabled a proliferation of staged auto accidents.

The Second District Court of Appeal has upheld without comment a temporary injunction against county enforcement of the ordinance after a lower court ruled in part that regulation of clinics is the state's responsibility.

One of the requirements in granting an injunction is a finding that the clinics that challenged the 2011 ordinance had a substantial likelihood of prevailing.

"Obviously, we're disappointed with the decision," said Rob Brazel, chief assistant county attorney for litigation. "We've got to determine whether or not there is something we can amend in the ordinance to make it enforceable."

Democratic Commissioner Kevin Beckner, working with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, pushed the local law. It required that operators of certain health-care clinics obtain a county license, offer proof that they are associated with a medical doctor, don't employ convicted felons in any positions and submit to random inspections.

Law enforcement and some insurers argued that some clinics were helping with staged auto accidents by issuing bogus medical diagnoses and prescribing unnecessary treatment for people who participated in them. Florida law requires auto drivers to carry $10,000 in personal injury protection, or PIP insurance, and claims were often filed against those policies.

At one point, Beckner contended that Hillsborough County led a state that was among the tops in the nation for staged auto accidents, and that was costing all motorists higher insurance premiums. Gov. Rick Scott, who has also attacked the problem, singled out Beckner's initiative for praise on a visit to Hillsborough County.

Beckner said Monday the county would continue to evaluate its legal options in the wake of the appellate court's ruling.

Meanwhile, he said, the fight will continue.

"We will use every tool and law available to us to aggressively crack down on perpetrators of insurance fraud,'' Beckner said.

The nearly 30 clinics that challenged the law said it was overly broad and impinged on the regulatory responsibilities of the state. They said it had an arbitrary and subjective process for people challenging the denial of a license, subjected them to unlawful searches from a broad array of law enforcement and included other requirements that made it all but impossible for otherwise legal clinics to operate.

"None of my clients are in favor of fraud," said Luke Lirot, an attorney for the clinics who challenged the ordinance. "They certainly wish that people involved in this line of work would refrain from any conduct of that nature.

"This was just the wrong mechanism to achieve that governmental purpose and imposed very harsh restrictions on every clinic regardless of whether or not there were any suspicions that they were involved in fraud."

About 70 clinics had been approved for licenses under the Hillsborough ordinance, which exempted medical providers whose businesses don't rely on crashes or that carry some other forms of accreditation. Enforcement of the ordinance has been on hold since the lower court ruling late last year.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Ruling all but ends Hillsborough law targeting PIP fraud 08/12/13 [Last modified: Monday, August 12, 2013 11:59pm]
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