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Auto-accident fraud bill bogs down Senate

Three crash dummies representing the Put the Brakes on Accident Fraud coalition, a business-backed group that cites “out-of-control lawyer fees” as a major PIP abuse, greet Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, on Tuesday outside the Senate chamber.
Published Mar. 7, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — The debate got prickly, lawmakers got confused by conflicting amendments and top Senate Republicans were dealt another embarrassing loss. But after 41/2 hours of debate Tuesday, the Senate's attempt to curb auto-accident fraud is ready for a vote.

"This is about being in the arena," Senate President Mike Haridopolos said after a strange afternoon session that focused on reforms to personal injury protection insurance, or PIP.

"Even when I don't agree with people, I appreciate their dedication to these complex issues. And this is what the Senate is supposed to be."

In many ways the Senate on Tuesday resembled an arena, with a packed gallery of lobbyists looking down to the Senate floor.

The real drama started when rebellious Republicans joined with Democrats to amend the bill in a way Haridopolos opposed.

The amendment, filed by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables, would benefit lawyers in PIP-related lawsuits.

After it passed 24-15, Haridopolos stopped debate, left the dais and began conferring with Senate leaders. When debate restarted, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, requested a re-vote on the proposed amendment.

Gaetz said his no vote was in error. Diaz de la Portilla wasn't buying it — saying the "bully pulpit" had been used to "mysteriously reconsider the overwhelming vote by which my amendment was adopted."

"I hope people were not swayed by bare-knuckle politics," Diaz de la Portilla told his colleagues.

The amendment ultimately passed a second time, 22-18, with Gaetz and Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, switching sides.

In all, senators slogged through roughly 30 amendments that members tried to tack onto the PIP legislation, SB 1860. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who is sponsoring the measure, said the process is sometimes complicated but ultimately helped improve the final product.

"Some of the amendments made the bill better," he said. "That's what the amendment process is for, to get input from other senators."

The Senate proposal still looks much different than the one that passed the House. The Senate proposal would allow people in an auto accidents up to 14 days to seek initial treatment; the House allows seven days. Chiropractors are eliminated from participating in PIP under the House version but not in the Senate.

The House bill also allows insurance companies to interview policyholders under oath when investigating potentially fraudulent claims. The Senate rejected an amendment that would have allowed examinations under oath.

The House's version also caps attorney fees in nearly all cases except class action suits.

The significant differences make it more difficult for lawmakers to reach a compromise before the 60-day legislative session ends Friday.

Gov. Rick Scott has said making changes to the state's auto insurance laws are one of his top legislative priorities for 2012.

On Tuesday, he wouldn't say if he'd call lawmakers back in special session if they fail to reach a deal this week.

"I'll figure that out on Friday," he said.

Times/Herald writers Steve Bousquet, Katie Sanders and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.

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