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No-fault reform bill draws opposition from both sides

The House rolled out its no-fault auto insurance reform bill Wednesday and it quickly drew fire from both sides in the dispute over controlling costs.

The proposal is designed to reduce fraud and cut soaring medical costs that have driven up insurance premiums for drivers.

Aimed at reducing lawsuits, no-fault was adopted in 1971 and requires drivers to buy their own personal injury protection insurance to compensate them for their injuries in auto accidents regardless of fault.

The Legislature is trying to reform the law because of widespread cases of fraud, ranging from staged accidents to charges for medical services that were never performed.

The insurance industry said the bill introduced in the House insurance regulation subcommittee was too weak in its limits on lawsuits, while trial lawyers complained about an amendment that would cut legal fees.

The subcommittee passed the bill unanimously, however, and sent it to the full Insurance Committee, which is expected to consider it next week.

The bill contains a number of relatively uncontroversial provisions to fight fraudulent personal injury protection claims, including stiffer criminal penalties for violators and stricter regulation of the release of accident reports.

But testimony at the subcommittee meeting focused on attempts to reduce legal fees and impose a medical fee schedule for claims made under the no-fault law.

The subcommittee defeated an amendment by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, that would have capped treatment costs at 25 percent more than the amounts paid by Medicare for the procedures. Representatives of doctors, lawyers, chiropractors and magnetic resonance imaging facilities testified that patients would not be able to get treatment under those circumstances.

The health care providers said Medicare rates are too low and just raising them by 25 percent would not be enough.

Vince Rio, representing State Farm Insurance Co. and the Florida Insurance Council, said more than 80 percent of the providers already accept Medicare and would be willing to treat accident victims at the higher rate.

Rio won on another point, however, when the committee approved an amendment by Ross that would limit the use of multipliers by the courts in determining attorney fees in no-fault cases. The courts have held that in difficult cases the attorney's hourly fee can be multiplied.

Still, Rio was dissatisfied with the bill as it left the subcommittee because it did not contain any limit on what the medical providers could charge.

Also unhappy was Paul Jess, general counsel for the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, who said the limiting of multipliers to cases deemed to be of great public importance could hurt efforts to find lawyers for accident victims.

"The bill has got a lot of problems," Jess said.