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State's House, Senate Take Different Roads on Auto Insurance: As This Year's Legislative Session Winds Down, the House and Senate Had Different Approaches to the No-Fault Auto Insurance Law

Apr 24, 2007

By Beatrice E. Garcia, The Miami Herald

Apr. 25--With less than two weeks before the end of the 2007 session, lawmakers once again are focused on auto insurance.

But the two proposals now moving to fix the state's controversial no-fault auto insurance law take completely different routes.

The Senate bill, approved Tuesday by the General Government Appropriations committee, could have slim chances of winning greater approval. As it stands, the bill only extends the no-fault law for another four years and provides some additional funds to deal with insurance fraud.

Until now, both Senate and House leaders have said they want to see fraud problems inherent in the current law fixed or the whole system scrapped. The state's no-fault law is set to expire Oct. 1.

Florida's auto insurance law requires that all drivers buy $10,000 of personal injury protection, also known as PIP, which pays medical bills, lost wages and death benefits for drivers and passengers in an accident regardless whose at fault.

Insurers have complained bitterly for years that many doctors and clinics outside the hospital system quickly run up bills to the $10,000 limit and often accidents are staged to collect the medical benefits.

The Senate bill, as originally sponsored by Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, contained a medical fee schedule, aimed at attacking some of the fraud problems. It also contained funds to hire extra fraud investigators.

"The bill as I had it -- all the insurance companies didn't like and all the special interests on the other side didn't like the fee schedule," said Posey. "A bill that nobody likes usually means there is some good public policy to be found there. So, it got beat like a drum."

Sen. Mike Bennett, who sponsored the amendment that made substantial changes in Posey's bill, said it's too soon to try to revamp PIP since reforms had been enacted in 2003.

"I just don't feel we have given it the full time [it needs] to really see all the results."

Though many insurers had been willing to let the no-fault law die later this year, some are having second thoughts now. Sam Miller, of the Florida Insurance Council, said the auto insurers and most of the healthcare insurers don't want to "see PIP sunset without anything taking its place."

The House's auto insurance bill, which surfaced late Monday in the Rules and Calendar Council, which usually doesn't take up substantive legislation, plans to do away with PIP.

It would require drivers to buy at least $15,000 of medical payments coverage to cover care in hospitals, trauma centers and emergency rooms shortly after an accident occurs.

It eliminates coverage for other treatments such as rehabilitative services and chiropractic doctors. The bill also contains a fee schedule to control the cost of medical care.

Gov. Charlie Crist made an appearance at the Senate committee meeting early Tuesday morning when it took up the auto insurance bill. His presence was acknowledged by the packed room. The governor only reminded Sen. J.D. Alexander who chairs the committee, that he needed to speak with the senator from Lake Wales later in the day.

But Crist's appearance may had have more to do with property insurance than with the no-fault auto insurance.

There is a bill before the General Goverment Appropriations committee that will allow the state-run insurer to expand -- a measure that Crist favors and would like to see move forward. The governor believes allowing Citizens Property Insurance to compete with private insurers could result in lower insurance rates.

A companion bill in the House is on its way to floor for a vote, hopefully this week, said its sponsor, Rep. Julio Robaina, a Republican from Miami.

Miami Herald writer Breanne Gilpatrick contributed to this story.


Copyright (c) 2007, The Miami Herald

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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