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After tense debate, PIP reform passes Florida Legislature

Published Mar. 10, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Despite a last-minute push for senators to reject a compromise, the Florida Legislature reached a deal Friday on no-fault car insurance reform and handed Gov. Rick Scott a major victory to close out the 2012 session.

"This is a triumphant moment for the residents of Florida," Scott said in a statement.

The House approved HB 119 largely along party lines, 80-34, and the Senate passed the measure at 9:20 p.m. on a razor-thin 22-17 vote.

Afterward, Scott appeared in the Senate chamber and congratulated Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

It was a hard-fought win. Reforming the state's no-fault personal injury protection law was one of Scott's main priorities this legislative session. Increases in staged accidents, fraudulent claims and litigation have caused premiums to skyrocket, he says. The Insurance Consumer Advocate's office said PIP costs in Florida increased by 20 percent in 2011, highlighting the need for reforms.

Scott spent Thursday and Friday leaning heavily on senators to embrace provisions in the House version of PIP reform. During debate, several senators argued that too many concessions were made.

"I think the House measure that has been sent over to us that we're being asked to concede to, that's the fraud," said Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables. "It's a fraud to the consumers of the state of Florida."

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, urged his colleagues to support the compromise he worked out Friday morning with House leaders. He pointed out Senate provisions that were contained in the final version, including measures on chiropractors and removing attorney fee caps.

"Is that giving in to the House on everything?" Negron said. "I don't think so. I think that was a Senate win."

On the amendment to accept the House version, the vote was 21-19. Eight Republican senators voted against. Democratic Sen. Bill Montford of Tallahassee was the deciding vote in favor.

The legislation now headed to the governor:

• Gives people 14 days to seek medical treatment after being injured in a car accident.

• Allows chiropractors to treat PIP patients, but not acupuncturists or massage therapists.

• Removes caps on attorney fees.

• Prohibits judges from using multipliers to increase fees awarded in complicated cases.

• Allows insurance companies to examine policyholders under oath when investigating possible fraud.

Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said the compromise he reached with Negron was something both chambers could support.

"I think we've both kind of come toward the middle and included some areas that we needed to address together," said Boyd, who sponsored the House bill.

Boyd and several other House members came across the rotunda to listen to the Senate's debate on the proposal.

The compromise required both chambers to concede on some hot-button issues, such as attorney fee caps and requiring insurance companies to roll back rates.

This new iteration of no-fault car insurance still requires $10,000 in minimum coverage, which can be used by people who are seriously injured in car accidents. But people with moderate or "soft-tissue" injuries can collect only $2,500 in benefits.

The state will also commission an independent actuarial study of the new PIP law to determine how much it would save policyholders. Then insurance companies will have to adjust their rates to meet certain thresholds in the coming months.

That concerns the insurers, who say that PIP far outpaces what they receive in premiums, so it may be hard to pass along savings in the short term.

Nevertheless, insurers embraced the compromise and said they would take a see-what-happens approach.

"There is enough in the bill to improve the no-fault law that we think we should try it," said Michael Carlson, executive director of an organization that represents State Farm, Allstate and Progressive.