Florida panel weighs in on workers' comp system

Published: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 12:50 a.m.

Work is winding down for a commission charged with recommending changes to the state's workers' compensation laws, and the panel is expected to seek a complete overhaul to the system.

In May, Gov. Jeb Bush created the 13-member Commission on Workers' Compensation Reform in response to a growing number of concerns with the state's workers' comp system. High premiums for employers, low payouts to injured workers and extensive fraud are just a few of the criticisms, and lawmakers have said they'll make it a priority when they convene in Tallahassee in March.

At that time, the state's budget woes will undoubtedly grab much of the Legislature's attention. But changes for workers' comp are long overdue and should be addressed, said Claude Revels, a member of the Commission on Workers' Compensation Reform.

The commission is expected to submit its findings to Gov. Bush and the Legislature by Jan. 31. During the commission's public forums around the state last year, guests and speakers didn't target a particular group - such as lawyers, doctors or insurers - for the problems with workers' comp, Revels said.

"Everyone agrees that the whole system is broken," said Revels, corporate safety director for JM Family Enterprises Inc. in Keystone Heights. "In the past, it was usually one group blaming the other. We have to realize that we're all part of the problem, and we have to hang up our guns at the door before we sit down and talk."

Legislators made a few changes to the workers' comp laws last year. They shortened the waiting period for case mediation from 124 to 90 days and created a "mandatory appellate mediation process," which essentially moved appeals from the backlogged district courts to appellate courts.

Also, exemptions were lifted on purchasing workers' comp insurance on commercial projects valued at $250,000 or more. The move was an attempt to stem fraud, which by some estimates is as high as $1 billion annually in the state.

But everyone involved appears to be seeking more than a few quick fixes to the system. The Florida Chamber of Commerce compiled its own 14-point set of recommendations for workers' comp changes, which include requiring an employee to notify the employer of an injury within three days of the injury (as opposed to the current allowance of 30 days), as well as capping attorney's fees at $175 an hour for injured workers' claims.

"I would expect a lot of our recommendations to be welcomed by the (workers' comp) commission," said Leslie Dughi, the chamber's director of government affairs. "At the same time, these are some politically-sensitive issues. We hope and pray that the Legislature makes some changes."

Florida isn't the only state grappling with workers' comp. Changes to workers' comp laws went into effect this month in California, Nebraska and Tennessee, and other states will examine some type of reform during their 2003 legislative sessions.

"What I'm seeing as legislatures convene is a level of activity (toward workers' comp) that I haven't seen in the last five or six years," said Richard Victor, executive director of the Workers' Compensation Research Institute, a Massachusetts-based research group. "When workers' comp costs rise, employers look for ways to mitigate that increase. They either improve their own policies, or they push for a change of the system as a whole."

Joe Coombs can be reached at (352) 338-3102 or coombsj@ gvillesun.com.

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