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Abortion politics, ‘greedy’ doctors

The Senate Health Regulation Committee replayed an abortion debate Monday and dealt with turf wars that led a senator to call doctors "greedy." But it couldn't find time to listen to a stroke patient.

Here is a round-up:

Abortion politics

The proposal is virtually the same as last year: Women would have to undergo ultrasounds before almost all abortions and watch them, unless they decline in writing.

The arguments on both sides were pretty much the same, too. The Health Regulation Committee showed again the deep divisions on abortion, voting 7-5 to approve a bill that mirrors a proposal vetoed last year by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

The debate ranged from a bill supporter saying that getting an abortion "should be a gut-wrenching decision (because) the woman is about to end a life" to an opponent saying the Legislature is "playing politics with women's health.''

But some of the lawmakers took a more-philosophical approach. Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said the ultrasound requirement is about women making an "informed decision."

"The reality is when somebody is making this decision, they should be given as much information as possible,'' Gardiner said.

Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of St. Petersburg, who said he considers himself "pro-life,'' voted against the ultrasound requirement. Latvala said he had talked about the proposal with doctors and found it overly intrusive.

"I just basically believe in the philosophy government needs to stay out of decisions like this,'' Latvala said.

Turf battles

Sen. Alan Hays' bill to place new requirements on expert witnesses in malpractice cases was already controversial enough. The Florida Medical Association and other doctor and hospital groups are lobbying for the bill, while trial lawyers are trying to kill it.

But Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, added fuel to the bill Monday when he proposed an amendment to give new drug-prescribing powers to optometrists and advanced registered nurse practitioners.

Bennett has been a longtime supporter of the increased prescribing powers, arguing the move would save money and increase access to health care. But the FMA has always successfully fought it, contending those powers should be reserved for doctors who go through medical school.

The debate got tense Monday when committee member Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, argued that Bennett's amendment could not procedurally be added to the bill because it dealt with an issue beyond malpractice. Chairman Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, agreed with Gaetz, killing the amendment.

When the malpractice bill came up for a vote later, the fuming Bennett lashed out at the FMA for opposing the prescribing idea.

"It's not about patient safety. It's not about patient care,'' Bennett said. "It's about greed. The FMA, the doctors are greedy.''

Tim Stapleton, executive vice president of the FMA, later released a statement that defended the group.

"While Senator Bennett obviously feels strongly about expanding the scope of practice for non-medical doctors, the FMA feels equally strongly that doing so would endanger patient safety and compromise quality of care,'' Stapleton said. "Senator Bennett's choice of words was unfortunate and the bill on which he attempted to place his amendment was inappropriate."

Hays, meanwhile, tried to distance the malpractice bill from the prescribing spat.

"There is nothing in this bill that would address the greed of anyone,'' the Umatilla Republican said.

The committee approved the bill 9-3, with Bennett one of the dissenters. Garcia said he plans next week to take up Bennett's proposal about optometrists and advanced registered nurse practitioners in a different bill.

A final rush

Only a few minutes remained in the meeting when Latvala hastily called for a vote on a bill dealing with head injuries suffered by high-school athletes. His real goal was to get the committee to take up a medical-malpractice bill sponsored by powerful Sen. John Thrasher.

And that's exactly what the committee did. In a matter of less than five minutes, it heard a brief presentation on the bill from a Thrasher aide and voted 11-1 to approve it.

In the audience was Laura Broder, 30, who had traveled from Broward County to testify against the bill. Broder is partially paralyzed after suffering a stroke in 2001 while undergoing what she expected to be a routine procedure at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

When it became apparent Broder wouldn't be allowed to testify, one of her attorneys, Stephen Cain, stood up in the audience and called it a "travesty.''

"They knew she was here,'' Cain, whose firm represented Broder in a multimillion-dollar settlement, said after the meeting. "They were well aware she was here.''

The bill primarily would limit the liability of University of Miami medical-school faculty members when they take care of patients at Jackson. The state would extend "sovereign immunity" to those doctors, which would limit liability to $200,000.

Ron Book, a lobbyist for the university and Jackson, said the bill also could apply to doctors from other private medical schools --- such as Nova Southeastern University --- if they eventually team up with teaching hospitals. He said it would help educate and train more doctors.

Before Latvala called for the quick vote, Book could be seen scurrying around the committee room trying to get the bill taken up. Later, Book said he is "fighting a clock" to get bills heard, as the legislative session nears its halfway point and bills stack up in committees.

Book, one of the best-known lobbyists in the Capitol, also said the bill still will have to go through two other Senate committees.

"Everybody will get their ample opportunity to testify,'' he said.

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at jim.saunders@healthnewsflorida.org.