In a vote of 20 to 9, the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill on Thursday that would alter the state’s workers’ compensation laws.
The 34-page bill, which had been impeded on multiple occasions, was reintroduced to the House with several new amendments. Should the bill be signed into law, it will affect a number of different statutes including but not limited to attorney fee schedules, the extension of benefit periods, the program’s enrollment process and medical reimbursement.
“What we have here is a bill that seeks to address recent case law," Rep. Daniel Burgess Jr., Republican from the 38th District who sponsored and presented the bill, said at the Commerce Committee meeting on Thursday. "That’s why we’re here today, because of certain cases you may know the names: Castellanos, Miles, Westfall, Jones. They probably ring a bell, we’ve probably heard a lot about them back home. This bill seeks to strike the right balance between maintaining constitutionality of our workers' compensation system but also ensuring that we had a very strong reform process.”
“What the un-amended bill does is require increased detail in a petition for benefits," Burgess continued. "It enhances preauthorization requirements for recommended medical treatment. It ends charge-based medical reimbursements for outpatient procedures. It increases the cap on temporary wage replacement benefits from 104 to 260 weeks and fills in the statutory gap between temporary and permanent wage replacement benefits that happens to certain injured workers.”
Attorney fees, in particular, were the subject of vehement debate as the main focus of the amended bill. It looks to reform the fee scheduling issues found in landmark cases, Miles v. City of Edgewater Police Department et al. and Castellanos v. Next Door Co et al. where the attorney fee statutes created in 2009 were ruled unconstitutional. The case of Miles v. Edgewater pertained to the right to negotiate and pay separate attorney fees upon losing a claim aside from the statutes’ provisions. while Castellanos dealt with the inability to challenge the reasonableness of an attorney’s fees. In both cases, the attorney fee statutes were seen in violation of due process.
Included in the bill is an amendment that will limit attorney fees, changing hourly rates from up to $250 per hour to $150 with fees awarded to plaintiff attorneys who succeed at winning their claimants’ cases. It would limit attorney departure fees, allowing employer carriers to petition should they believe the fee should not have been awarded or is too high. Moreover, Judges of Compensation Claims will be provided with the discretion to review how pertinent attorney hours were to claimants’ cases and to determine if they were excessive.
“We’re trying to strike the right balance between constitutionality and the need for strong reform.” Burgess said of the amendment at the meeting. “It builds on the approach taken in the bill, recognizes also the importance of the law and of the case law that has been given, it does not ignore that. It provides for further control of attorney fee related costs.”
“The grand bargain essentially is just that," Burgess added. "It’s a bargain between employers and employees. And in reality, if the systems working there shouldn’t be that much of a need for strong attorney involvement in what we’re trying to do is strike the right balance strike the right reforms to ensure that the cost drivers are not coming out of the need for litigation or through the increase in litigation."
The amendment had its share of dissenters. Rep. Evan Jenne, Democrat from the 99th District, although praising Burgess for his work, offered an amendment to the amendment in an effort to remove the fee cap proposed. Falling back on the fee schedule statute, Jenne proposed holding insurance carriers responsible for payment of reasonable fees when claimants’ benefits are wrongly denied and more than 30 days have passed on an unanswered petition. The amendment, however, was voted down.
“Without the right to an attorney who can be awarded a reasonable fee, the workers’ compensation law can no longer assure the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker," Jenne said. "A reasonable attorney’s fee has always been the linchpin to the constitutionality of the workers’ compensation law."
If the bill is signed by Gov. Rick Scott, it will go into effect July 7.