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Mental health bill dies without vote

Despite a frantic, last-minute push by Gov. Lawton Chiles, a powerful Republican lawmaker helped kill a plan to require health coverage for mental illness.

The maneuvering unfolded late Friday, in the final hour of the 1998 legislative session.

While Chiles' chief of staff, Linda Shelley, worked GOP legislators outside the state House chambers, the governor himself made phone calls.

The plan's prime sponsor, Rep. Mary Brennan, D-Pinellas Park, ran in and out of the House chamber to confer with Chiles' aides, and Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa, pitched in as well.

But blocking passage was the powerful Rep. John Thrasher of Orange Park, who is in line to become the next House speaker later this year.

Thrasher's district includes suburbs of Jacksonville, where several major insurance companies have their headquarters. The industry has opposed the legislation for years, insisting it would force insurers to raise premiums for other customers. Opponents also said mental illness should not be treated like physical illness, because it could force insurers to cover treatment for alcoholics.

The measure's backers said they had support from House Speaker Daniel Webster and Majority Leader Jim King. But at the final bang of the House gavel, Thrasher had won.

There was no vote. For the third year in a row, it was dead. And with the polls showing Republican Jeb Bush leading in this year's governor's race, the bill's passage in the future appears unlikely.

"They've done everything for the business community, and they don't do one tiny thing for mentally ill people," Brennan said.

According to Brennan and Chiles' top aides, Thrasher killed the measure after conferring with a top lobbyist for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida.

But Thrasher, whose power has risen dramatically in recent weeks as his speakership nears and lawmakers seek his favor in hopes of good committee assignments, later denied killing the measure.

"We just didn't get to it," he said.

Thrasher acknowledged, however, trying to cut deals with the Democratic governor. He said he asked Shelley about giving Chiles the mental health measure in exchange for the governor's signature on a controversial plan to limit consumers' ability to sue businesses for negligence.

"I asked (Shelley) to think about it," Thrasher said.

But supporters of the mental health bill said such an exchange would be like trading an elephant for an ant. Chiles, who has expressed concerns that the lawsuit-limitation package could be bad for consumers and cost the state a lot of money, agreed and did not accept.

"That's not a fair deal," Shelley said.

Shelley said later that Chiles was ready to talk by phone with Mike Hightower, a lobbyist for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida. But Hightower claimed he did not have a cellular phone.

When a state employee offered his mobile phone, Hightower had left.

"He ran out of the building," said Travis Moore, an aide to Grant. "Unbelieveable."

When the session was over, Chiles and Brennan met amid a crowd of legislators and lobbyists celebrating the end.

"I'm sorry I couldn't help you," the retiring governor said, shaking Brennan's hand.

"Thanks for the effort," she responded.