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Staged accidents plummet in Hillsborough after county crackdown on clinics

TAMPA — Often criticized as the epicenter of auto insurance fraud in the state, Hillsborough County is turning its reputation around with a new ordinance targeting the problem.

"Since we passed the ordinance in September of last year, we have seen a 62 percent decrease in the number of staged accidents," County Commissioner Kevin Beckner said Saturday.

The ordinance closed a loophole that allowed fraudulent clinics to operate without a license. The clinics are now required to list the responsible physician, identify and provide background information for employees, and maintain regular business hours. With about half of the clinics now closed, the number of staged accidents and questionable claims has dropped significantly, according to Beckner.

It's a success rate that area law enforcement agencies would like to duplicate. They hope a new state law will help make that happen.

On Saturday, Gov. Rick Scott met in Tampa with representatives from several law enforcement agencies to discuss the impact that personal injury protection, known as PIP, fraud has on the region.

"We are the number one state for staged auto accidents where people fake an accident," Scott said. "If we don't fix this — it's already $1-billion in fraud — it will go up 30 percent year after year after year."

There are currently two vastly different bills in the state House and Senate aiming to address the problem.

The Senate plan, which most closely mirrors the Hillsborough County ordinance, excludes massage therapy and acupuncture from the list of allowable treatments under the PIP system. It also tightens licensing requirements for medical clinics, requires long-form crash reports when someone is injured in a wreck and creates a statewide organization to help fight PIP abuses.

The House's approach allows policyholders injured in an auto accident to be treated by a medical professional of their choice unless the cost exceeds $1,500. It also applies a 72-hour window for treatment, caps attorney's fees and allows insurance companies to examine policyholders under oath when investigating claims.

Both are expected to be debated on the House and Senate floors in the coming weeks.

Currently, all drivers registered in Florida must carry "no fault" insurance, which allows for up to $10,000 in medical care for injuries sustained in a car crash, no matter who caused the wreck. But the cost of buying PIP coverage and the payout amounts have both risen substantially.

From 2004 to 2011, Florida's average claim cost has risen 28 percent, the fifth-largest increase nationally. The insurance industry blames increased fraud — from staged auto accidents to phony and inflated medical claims — that are processed through clinics. This results in higher premiums for customers.

"I'm optimistic that the House and the Senate are going to pass different bills so we can crack down on this fraud and stop this," Scott said. "Just like last year when we had a dramatic impact on the pill mills around the state, we will have a significant impact on the PIP clinics in the state."

Times staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2442.

CORRECTION: Gov. Rick Scott said staged auto accidents already account for "$1 billion in fraud.'' Earlier versions of this story quoted him incorrectly about the cost.

Staged accidents plummet in Hillsborough after county crackdown on clinics 02/25/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 27, 2012 12:16pm]

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