Lawmakers rewrite workers’ comp legislation April 30, 2003 Daniel Staesser Assistant Editor Regular News Lawmakers rewrite workers’ comp legislation Assistant EditorWhen Bar Workers’ Compensation Chair Martin Leibowitz and immediate past Chair Rafael Gonzalez walked into the House Administration Committee on April 14, they along with other interested parties got a shock.House staffers were pulling from boxes and distributing a just-rewritten 377-page workers’ compensation bill, radically revamping a bill that had been approved only a few days earlier by the House Insurance Committee.The new bill, HB 1837, they said, is decidedly more unfriendly to injured workers and the lawyers who represent them. It passed after only brief testimony and limited debate among committee members.The next day, they went to a Senate Banking and Insurance Committee meeting and watched as a largely revamped bill was introduced, and 23 amendments proposed. The Senate bill, SB 1132, however, turned out more worker- and lawyer-friendly, they said.And that’s the way it has been for them during this session as special commissions have reported and various committees have held hearings and drafted bills, only to have changes proposed with little or no notice, as at the House Administration Committee.“It’s changing almost by the hour,” said Gonzalez, who has been following developments closely since last summer. Added Leibowitz, “It’s a moving target.”It hasn’t been easy for legislators either. “In the nicest possible way, what redeeming qualities would this bill have to help injured workers?” asked Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Pembroke Pines, at the Senate meeting after reviewing benefit cuts, particularly for permanent total disability.“We have essentially taken a system where we encourage people to stay out of work, where we encourage people not to get better, because the only way they can get benefits is if they stay on permanent total disability,” said Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac.“I equate workers’ comp with a rubber tube, that over the years everybody has been messing with it, putting little patches over it to fix problems, and now we have just a big gusher that doesn’t make any sense to anybody,” he added.While the issue was in flux as this Bar News went to press, Leibowitz and Gonzalez reported on trends they have seen emerging in the bills:• Cutting fees for attorneys representing injured workers. Proposals include cutting the current percentages attorneys get on recoveries, and either limiting hourly compensation or eliminating it entirely. One amendment to the Senate bill, however, raised the maximum hourly payment to $5,000 in medical benefit disputes, and as much as $20,000 if the carrier tries to deny coverage. It also raised the percentage on benefits won that would be paid in attorneys’ fees. The House has no hourly rates. Gonzalez and Leibowitz said that would make it impossible for lawyers to take many, if not most, small cases because they might only earn $150 to $200 for 15, 20, or more hours of work.• Establishing a peer review panel of out-of-state licensed physicians to handle the medical review process, a system likened to what some call “Fair Care.” While lawmakers say that would be a way to resolve medical disputes without trial, Gonzalez and Leibowitz said that it would be expensive to involve out-of-state doctors and create a system with different procedures for handling different parts of a case. They also said that Minnesota tried a similar system with in-state peer review panels in the late 1980s that proved expensive and unworkable.• Enhancing some benefits for temporarily injured workers, while at the same time limiting benefits for those permanently totally disabled (PTD). The House and Senate both discussed cutting off PTD benefits between the ages of 65 and 75. Annual cost-of-living increases could be cut.• The Senate proposed dropping rates by 15 percent, while the House had no rollback provision.• Creation of a new appellate division, where appeals from judges of compensation claims go to a workers’ compensation appellate tribunal, appointed by the governor, before they would go to a district court of appeal. Instead of having all appeals going to the First DCA, the House would split them among the five DCAs.Leibowitz said that lawyers who want to follow the daily changes on the issue may visit the Workers’ Compensation Section Web site at www.flworkerscomp.org. Also on the site is a list of the section’s authorized positions, which include supporting legislation aimed at ensuring the right of the injured workers to have their cases reviewed, while opposing that which would restrict or restructure attorneys’ fees.Gonzalez said the section is working on a side-by-side comparison of the House and Senate bills and the recommendations from a blue ribbon task force appointed by the governor.Against a backdrop of budget problems and medical malpractice issues, Leibowitz said the issue is unlikely to be resolved during the regular session, and will be taken up in special session.