TALLAHASSEE — There already has been lengthy discussions about Florida House Bill 7085, which barely got out of subcommittee last month.
The House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee narrowly approved, 8-7, a 34-page bill that deals with a series of issues, the Gainesville Sun reported. But the biggest debate was saved for attorney fees. Business groups claim that those fees are jacking up the costs of the workers' compensation system. The proposed bill would approve fees for workers attorneys to be paid up to $250 per hour.
On April 6, the Commerce Committee is scheduled to take a look at the proposed bill.
According to a staff analysis put out by the state House of Representatives, “Florida courts have recently found multiple parts of the workers’ compensation law unconstitutional in the areas of carrier paid injured worker attorney fees, time limits on temporary wage replacement benefits (i.e., indemnity) and the right of an injured worker to pay for their own attorney.’’
The Office of Insurance Regulation ordered a rate increase of 14.5 percent effective Dec. 1.
The proposed bill would include the following changes to the workers' comp law:
* Direct payment is permitted to attorneys by claimants.
* Temporary wage-replacement benefits can be extended from 104 weeks to 260 weeks.
* A judge of Compensation Claims can award an hourly fee, which is different from the attorney-fee schedule’s statutory percentage. An caveat is that this ruling is only allowed when the statutory fee is less than 40 percent or greater than 125 percentage of the hourly rate.
* The injured worker is responsible for any remaining attorney fees, all according to any retainer agreement that might have been made between the two parties.
* The bill would allow the reduction of premiums by no more than 5 percent if a notice is filed within 30 days.
When debating the bill, the subcommittee discussion focused on making sure the proposal fulfilled constitutional requirements. There was a state Supreme Court ruling last April that said that the fee limits paid to attorneys were unconstitutional.
The crux of the case — Marvin Castellanos v. Next Door Company — was that an attorney made just $1.53 an hour in pursuing a claim for an injured Miami worker.
Opponents of this bill are business groups Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Retail Federation, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Independent Business.
The Florida Chamber issued a statement, talking about taking steps to work to resolve a $1.5 billion increase on the business community.
“Our No. 1 goal is to get injured workers back to work, while also lowering rates on job creators,” said Carolyn Johnson, the Florida Chamber’s Director of Business, Economic Development and Innovation Policy.
During the subcommittee meeting last month, Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville, proposed an amendment to the bill that would have taken away the responsibility of insurers or businesses to pay the attorney fees of workers who won their cases.
But the subcommittee voted down Fant’s proposal and advanced the bill to today’s committee meeting in Tallahassee.