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Senators Get New Take on Insurance; Agreement Hinges on Governor's Role

TALLAHASSEE -- Byline: Sarah Skidmore, Times-Union staff writer

July 27, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- On the day a Florida Senate committee concluded its work for the second special session on the malpractice quandary, a key Senate negotiator said the debate could have been concluded as well if the governor would bend on his position.

The session, held to find a resolution to the malpractice problem of rising insurance costs, is scheduled to end tonight. But it's unclear when lawmakers will meet again as action relies almost solely on negotiators and the governor now.

The only remaining lawmakers in Tallahassee yesterday were Senate Judiciary Committee members and chamber negotiators. The committee members heard the last of sworn testimony from stakeholders to clarify conflicting information from special interest groups.

With the hurdle of possible misinformation cleared, lead Senate negotiator Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said the House and Senate have reached an understanding on what could be agreeable. But the House is unwilling to sign on if it feels Gov. Jeb Bush wouldn't do so as well.

"In essence the legislative process is stalled until the governor moves off his stance," Lee said.

The Republican Senate has taken a political beating from the governor for not supporting his position on a $250,000 cap, but Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said this has solidified the Senate's position as a chamber.

"Right now I'm trying to be as innovative as I can be," King said. "I hope he's trying to do the same thing."

The only comment from the governor came through his spokeswoman, Alia Faraj.

"Gov. Bush agrees with the 80 percent of Floridians who understand that the state is in an access-to-health-care crisis," Faraj said in an e-mail response to the media. "The House has offered a compromise that includes meaningful reform to address this serious issue. With doctors leaving the state every day, the stakes couldn't be higher, and the governor remains hopeful that the Senate will act in the interest of all Floridians."

The sticking point among the parties has been limiting awards for non-economic damages. The governor has proposed a cap at $250,000, which the House stood by until this session when it increased the limit to up to $1 million. The Senate has recommended $1.5 million for most cases but allowing an exception for up to $6 million in severe cases.

The discussion of caps was addressed in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. But more attention was received by testimony that was different from what senators had been told. For example, speakers could not factually support the idea that frivolous lawsuits are on the rise or that there are fewer doctors in Florida.

"We are not going to put legislative findings in print that are based on rhetoric that can't be substantiated by facts," said Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, Judiciary Committee chairman.

Some presenters disputed the logic used by the committee, such as saying the number of licensed physicians does not indicate the presence and activity of doctors in the state. There were no numbers presented that indicated the breadth or location of specialists or whether a physician has limited service, said William Large, who oversaw the Governor's Select Task Force on medical malpractice.

Some senators said they were surprised to find that First Professionals Insurance Group, the state's largest malpractice insurer, was performing well in Florida and better than it is in other states and legislative changes weren't needed to ensure this success.

Others said it was strange that the state relies heavily on insurance company actuaries to verify information used in rate setting. King said there will be further need to work on insurance regulation and rate setting procedures.

Although this information disputes some of the long-held perceptions of some in Tallahassee, Villalobos and King said there is still a need for reform.

Lee said yesterday it was too soon to tell if the agreement can be solidified by the end of session today.

Staff writer Sarah Skidmore can be reached at (904) 359-4268 or via e-mail at [email protected].