Patronis: Attorney Fee Limits ‘Good Debate To Have'

Jan 19, 2018

The state Legislature should consider restricting how much insurance companies can spend on attorney fees when fighting workers’ compensation claims, state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis told The News Service of Florida on Thursday.

The House last week passed a bill that would limit plaintiffs’ attorney fees to $150 an hour and reduce amounts paid to hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers for treating injured patients.

Patronis, a Panama City restaurateur who was appointed state CFO by Gov. Rick Scott last summer, said he knows first-hand how workers’ compensation insurance costs can impact employers and appreciates the benefits of affordable rates.

“It gave me greater flexibility. It made me feel like I didn’t have to contract out labor. I could hire my own people,” he said. “So, the proposal of limiting those overhead costs that can go to the ownership of the policy, I think that’s good for business.”

While the House bill (HB 7009) would restrict attorney fees for injured workers, it does not impose the same limits on insurance companies that hire lawyers to fight the claims.

When asked whether the restrictions should apply to insurers, Patronis said, “I think two-way attorney fees (restrictions) is a good debate to have.”

A recent report from the Office of the Judges of Compensation Claims showed that legal fees in the workers’ compensation system totaled nearly $440 million during the 2016-2017 fiscal year. The majority --- nearly $254 million --- was spent challenging workers' compensation claims.

Workers' compensation is a no-fault system meant to protect workers and employers. It is supposed to provide workers who are injured on the job access to medical benefits they need to be made whole. Those who are injured for at least eight days also are entitled to indemnity benefits, or lost wages. In exchange for providing those benefits, employers generally cannot be sued in court for causing injuries.

While the system is supposed to be self-executing, injured workers hire attorneys when there are disputes over the amounts of benefits they should receive.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has repeatedly said over the past two years that attorney fees should be kept low, regardless of whether they are for representation of injured workers or insurers, and he reiterated that position last week.

“When I talk to employers, they don’t care if it’s plaintiffs’ fees or defense fees,” Negron said. “They only want to pay attorneys’ fees that are necessary in the system. We want them to be as low as possible across the board.”

Businesses have pushed the Legislature to pass a workers’ compensation bill that would restrict plaintiffs’ attorney fees since 2016, when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that long-standing fee caps were unconstitutional.

The National Federation of Independent Business-Florida opposes a move to cap what insurance companies can spend defending claims. NFIB Executive Director Bill Herrle said insurance companies use attorneys only after injured workers challenge decisions, which he called the beginning of the “cost cycle.”

“There’s no chicken-and-egg quandary here,” he said.

The Senate does not have a companion measure to the House bill, but it is pursuing other workers’ compensation issues, including a proposal that would help first responders who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder receive workers’ compensation benefits.

In Florida, injured workers are prevented from obtaining workers’ compensation benefits ---either medical benefits or lost wages --- for mental or nervous injuries not accompanied by physical injuries. The law was changed in 2007, though, to allow first responders to obtain medical benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder without having accompanying physical injuries.

However, they still are precluded from obtaining lost wages for PTSD. The Senate proposal (SB 376) would allow first responders to receive a percentage of their lost wages because of the PTSD.

Though a similar bill has been filed in the House, it hasn’t been heard. The proposal is opposed by the Florida League of Cities, which contends it would increase the costs of workers’ compensation benefits that would have to be absorbed by taxpayers.

Patronis has come out in favor of the legislation.

“We’re aggressively pursuing expansion of benefits to our first responders,” he said adding that the benefit is “long overdue.”

“That particular profession has an abnormally high suicide rates. It’s time that we act,” he said.