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Amid legal worries, committee approves worker's comp bill

Over protests that one of the measures unconstitutionally reduces worker benefits, a House panel passed a worker's compensation rewrite that supporters said would save employers up to 6 percent a year.

The House Commerce Committee passed the 222-page bill 14-4. The bill next goes to the Appropriations Committee before it reaches the floor. But whether the Legislature passes a comprehensive bill this year is in doubt. The Senate has not yet taken up worker's comp legislation and lobbyists following the legislation say they don't think the Senate is inclined to act.

"Now that there's clear momentum it's been represented that they (the senators) would have an interest in taking up worker's compensation in an appropriate matter," said House Commerce Committee Chairman Art Simon, D-Miami.

Florida Labor Secretary Frank Scruggs said the new worker's comp law would save money by toughening safety requirements, trying to cut medical costs and getting injured workers back to work more quickly.Scruggs said that the savings could total $242-million next year but that long-term savings would be greater.

One pilot project would allow employers to provide reduced benefits on a 24-hour-a-day combination health plan and worker's comp coverage. An amendment by Rep. Jeff Huenink, R-Clearwater, extended immunity from lawsuits to employers, which now is provided in worker's comp coverage.

Opponents said the change made the pilot project unconstitutional because it would provide those workers reduced benefits while also taking away their ability to sue for damages. Worker's comp coverage ordinarily shields employers from lawsuits. But opponents said protection shouldn't be applied if benefits are reduced.

"There's no doubt there's going to be a constitutional issue and no doubt we're going to have to look at it in its present form," Simon said.

Operators of self-insurance funds oppose the bill because it would potentially impose an assessment for an emergency fund to bail out insolvent insurers.