1. Business

Romano: Take a closer look at who's being ripped off by Florida's workers' comp laws

Published Oct. 12, 2016

Simple question:

Do you trust an insurance carrier to spend money on you voluntarily?

Yeah, me neither.

And yet that is essentially what the state's Chamber of Commerce proposes. And it is what Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater advocates. And it is, heaven help us, an idea the state Legislature will probably revisit.

The issue here is Florida's workers' compensation laws. For at least the third time in seven years, the state Supreme Court has ruled our workers' comp laws unconstitutional.

The latest ruling has to do with the amount of fees attorneys can collect, and so the chamber is trying to paint it as a judicial cash grab at the expense of Florida businesses.

That is, in a word, bull. And it's not the Supreme Court's intent.

Cutting through all the nonsense, this is the real issue:

The average worker has no hope of fighting an insurance company that wants to deny medical bills or back pay in case of injury. Why? Because, in an effort to streamline the process, most of your rights have been stripped when it comes to workers' comp. The only realistic option you have is hiring an attorney to challenge an insurance company when it doesn't want to pay its handpicked doctors.

But here's the problem:

Florida passed a law in 2009 that can make attorneys' fees so absurdly low that it's hard to find a lawyer to defend you. And so you are essentially at the mercy of insurance carriers to treat you fairly.

No need to worry about abuses there, huh?

The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that laws have tilted so heavily in favor of the insurance carrier that there are no longer any checks and balances to the system.

The insurance industry's own expert witness testified before the justices that he has never heard of a case of an individual prevailing in court without being represented by an attorney.

Yet, in the particular case the court was hearing, the claimant's attorney had been awarded a fee of $1.53 an hour under state law.

And we're supposed to believe the attorneys are the greedy ones?

I'm not making this argument on behalf of attorneys. Most of them already make a far better living than you or I. The argument is on behalf of the employee getting steamrolled by insurance carriers who have never before had reason to fear Mr. or Mrs. Blue Collar taking them to court.

But, within months of the latest court decision, the insurance industry asked the state to approve a rate hike of nearly 20 percent on Florida businesses, presumably to pay attorneys' fees on cases they anticipate losing.

"What they're saying is: We're going to deny benefits, and if we end up losing in court, we're going to raise premiums and pass the cost on to our customers," said lawyer Mark Touby, who won the landmark Castellanos Supreme Court case in April. "It's a great business model. They can't lose."

The response from state leaders has been nothing short of Chicken Little-ish.

Instead of acknowledging the obvious system flaws being pointed out by the Supreme Court, they use scare tactics to point the blame at lawyers. And yet, they never mention that insurance industry attorneys are allowed to charge whatever they like. It's only your attorneys they want to discourage with a fee cap.

It's been pointed out, now that the law is overturned, the Castellanos attorneys will stand to make much more than the $800 in medical bills that were originally in question.

Yet here's a more important question: Why was the insurance company wrongfully bullying a worker over an $800 medical bill in the first place?

Answer: Because, up until now, it could.

Yes, our workers' compensation laws need to be addressed again by the Legislature next spring. But reforms should benefit everyone, not just the insurance industry.