With the debate focused heavily on attorney fees, a key House committee Thursday overhauled a bill that would make changes in Florida's workers' compensation insurance system.
Business groups, which have lobbied heavily to limit fees paid to attorneys for injured workers, backed the revised bill approved by the House Commerce Committee. But the proposal drew criticism from Democratic lawmakers and other opponents who said it could hamper the ability of injured workers to get legal representation in disputes about benefits.
Lawmakers are grappling with the complex workers' compensation system after two Florida Supreme Court rulings last year helped lead to a 14.5 percent insurance-rate increase for businesses. One of those rulings found that strict limits on attorney fees were unconstitutional.
"We're trying to strike the right balance between constitutionality and the need for strong reform," said House Insurance & Banking Chairman Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican who is spearheading the bill (HB 7085).
But Rep. Sean Shaw, a Tampa Democrat who is a former state insurance consumer advocate, said balance in an initial version of the bill was "totally knocked out of whack" by changes made Thursday by the committee.
"Premium reduction is important," Shaw said. "But so is the ability of an injured worker to get the benefits that have been denied to them. And fees are paid by the employer, by the insurance company when they wrongfully deny benefits."
Business and insurance groups objected to the initial version of the bill, which would have allowed judges of compensation claims to approve attorney fees up to $250 an hour. But under a 14-page amendment approved by the Commerce Committee, the maximum fee would be $150 an hour. Also, the proposal includes a detailed process for determining fee amounts.
The Supreme Court ruling last year on fee limits came in a case, known as Marvin Castellanos v. Next Door Company, that involved an attorney being awarded the equivalent of $1.53 an hour in successfully pursuing a claim for benefits for a worker injured in Miami. The justices' ruling that the state's fee limits were unconstitutional played a key role in the 14.5 percent rate increase that began taking effect Dec. 1.
Burgess' revised bill is now ready to go to the full House. But it differs from a Senate bill (SB 1582), which, in part, includes maximum attorney fees of $250 an hour.
During Thursday's meeting, Burgess pointed to the difficulty of resolving the workers' compensation issue.
"It's been said that this workers' compensation issue and the bill that we have before us today in general is an egg on a spoon on a tightrope over a whole bunch of molten lava," Burgess said.