House panel moves PIP insurance overhaul forward 

Gov. Rick Scott Tuesday said he looks forward to signing a bill aimed at preventing fraud in Florida's personal-injury insurance, even though cracks have started to show in Republican support for it.

With a 10-5 party line vote, the Civil Justice Subcommittee on Wednesday approved the bill (CS/HB 119) that addresses the state's mandatory personal injury protection, or PIP, coverage.

Scott appeared before a Capitol rotunda rally organized by business interests to support the bill, calling PIP fraud "a billion dollar tax on our citizens."

"We're tired of the cost; we're tired of the scammers taking advantage of us," he said.

The proposed law requires those hurt in a wreck to go to a hospital emergency room or hospital-owned walk-in clinic within 72 hours for personal-injury coverage to kick in.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, however, offered two amendments that would have eliminated bill provisions regarding capping attorney fees and authorizing "examinations under oath," in which insurance company lawyers question accident victims and others they suspect of fraud.

Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican, called the examinations punitive as they can take a whole day or more and often require the person questioned to get a lawyer. He characterized them as "all about giving 100 percent of the leverage to one side," the insurance companies.

But he withdrew the amendments, which had Democratic support, after agreeing to work on the bill's language with its sponsor, Bradenton Republican Rep. Jim Boyd.

Lawmakers passed PIP coverage in 1972 to make sure anyone hurt in an automobile wreck could timely medical treatment. The legislation mandated that a driver's insurance company pay up to $10,000 to cover medical bills and lost wages after an accident — no matter who's at fault. All Florida drivers are required to carry no-fault insurance.

Over the years, fraudsters have turned Florida into the top state for staged accidents, particularly in the Tampa and Miami-Dade metropolitan areas. Estimates show PIP fraud nearing $1 billion in the state this year.

Those costs are passed on to customers through increased premiums. In some sections of South Florida and the Tampa Bay area, that can mean hundreds of extra dollars per year.

Business and insurance interests support the measure. But many who spoke before the committee were in the opposition. They said it would subject accident victims to long waits in understaffed emergency rooms, and would prevent them from seeing doctors or other health care professionals who already know their health condition.

Others said the 72-hour requirement was too short. Symptoms of soft-tissue injuries and concussions, they said, may not manifest till later.

Christine Donovan, an accident victim from central Florida, told the committee she suffered soft-tissue injuries but was accused of defrauding her insurer. She said she suffered a series of embarrassing questions, even about her sex life.

"This is crazy," she said.

The bill also limits reimbursement to doctors, dentists, physician's assistants and nurse practitioners. Chiropractors said their business would suffer and they would have to lay off office staff.

And a parade of attorneys who represent emergency room doctors also opposed the examinations under oath, saying they will take time away from treating patients.

The bill next goes to the House Economic Affairs Committee.

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Follow James L. Rosica on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jlrosica

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