The governor's latest attempt to have his way in the medical malpractice debate blew up the special legislative session Tuesday before it even began.
The spark was an e-mail Gov. Jeb Bush sent to political supporters accusing Republican senators of caving in to trial lawyers and "jeopardizing access to health care."
He hoped to exert enough pressure to prod the Senate into embracing his solution to soaring medical malpractice insurance rates: a $250,000 cap on pain and suffering awards.
Instead, Bush's message angered Senate Republicans so much they shut down negotiations Tuesday with the House and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings.
Tuesday's negotiating, on the eve of today's special session, was supposed to take three hours. "It lasted five minutes," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island.
The Republican Party of Florida sent Bush's electronic rebuke to 22,000 supporters Monday. In it, Bush accuses Senate Republicans of giving in to the demands of the state's trial lawyers, who oppose a $250,000 cap on pain and suffering awards that Bush favors.
"Healthcare in our state is being held hostage by a handful of Republican, yes, Republican Senators who may be placing their own ambitions above the values that got them elected as Republicans and, as a results are jeopardizing people's access to healthcare," Bush wrote. "Instead of working together, some in our legislative leadership have caved to pressure from special interests . . . Florida's trial lawyers."
He ended by saying that lawmakers "need to know that if they don't support our plan, we'll hold them accountable."
Republican senators already were stinging from remarks Bush made about them during a speech last week at a GOP event in Orlando.
"We were the entree," Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said of Bush's comments in Orlando. "It astounded me."
Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, accused Bush of politicizing a complex policy debate.
"I am greatly disappointed and extremely surprised that at a time when senators, representatives and negotiators from the governor's office are spending countless hours working to find consensus on this issue, that the governor would turn this significant policy issue into a political debate," King said in a statement.
Although the state GOP distributed the e-mail, it was generated by the governor's office as part of his official duties. A spokeswoman defended it as a way to communicate with constituents.
"It was from the governor and sent out on behalf of the governor," said Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj.
Bush urged supporters to call senators and included the names and phone numbers of all 40 members. The e-mail directed recipients to reply to a GOP spokesman. Senators who received the e-mail said it went to 22,000 people, described by Jennings as Bush's "campaign volunteers, supporters and contributors."
Last week, King accused Bush of using medical malpractice to hammer trial lawyers, who supported his opponent in his reelection bid and are among the single biggest source of Democratic campaign cash.
"I almost feel like medical malpractice is just a vehicle for him to bash the trial lawyers," Jones said. "This has just gotten way out of hand. . . . If we cannot pass a bill, then he needs to look in the mirror and ask why."
Bush was in Canada on Tuesday, but Jennings denied Jones' suggestion.
"I think vendetta is absolutely inaccurate," Jennings said, repeating a word used by Jones. "The governor was communicating with the people who have communicated with him."
Bush ordered lawmakers back today for the second special session on the medical malpractice issue.
Both chambers have passed bills aimed at reducing the spiraling cost of medical malpractice insurance. They have agreed on some issues, including requiring hospitals to increase safety measures and inform patients if they have been inadvertently harmed.
But the most contentious part of the debate _ and the only issue in Bush's e-mail _ is the $250,000 cap.
Senators will convene briefly today. House members are not scheduled to convene until Thursday. Both might pass bills they already have passed and go home, leaving behind key negotiators to work out differences.
Some lawmakers are paying as much as $600 to fly to Tallahassee for the day. But almost no one expects the session to produce a bill both chambers can agree on. Senators have said they plan to call witnesses under oath to try to put an end to conflicting information.
"Our intent is to get the session kicked off, then send all but a few people home," said Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City.
From the e-mail
Excerpts of Gov. Jeb Bush's e-mail to Republican supporters about skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance rates:
There is a great deal of political rhetoric in Tallahassee right now. Unfortunately, our own Republican leadership is, in many ways, responsible for confusing the issue. Instead of working together, some in our legislative leadership have caved to pressure from special interests. . . . Florida's trial lawyers. Healthcare in our state is being held hostage by a handful of Republican, yes, Republican Senators who may be placing their own ambitions above the values that got them elected as Republicans and, as a result are jeopardizing people's access to health care. They are standing with trial lawyers who seek to maintain a system that protects their own special interests and a status quo that has brought us skyrocketing health care costs and forced physicians to close their practices. Frustrating to me is the fact that twice before, Democrat led legislatures worked hard to pass solutions fiercely opposed by trial lawyers. Why then can't a Republican led legislature, in the midst of the worst crisis our state has faced, pass meaningful reform over the opposition of the very same small group of trial lawyers?
Call your legislators today at the number listed below and urge them to support meaningful health care reform. Be specific. Tell them that Florida needs a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in malpractice lawsuits to adequately protect our citizens while ensuring access to quality care and maintaining personal relationships with physicians.
I know this decision requires courage, and I believe our legislature has the courage to stand up to the special interests and protect the people of Florida. But they need to know that you will back them up. And they need to know that if they don't support our plan, we'll hold them accountable.