Florida State Rep. Danny Burgess
Florida State Rep. Danny Burgess (Meredith Geddings)

Nearly a year after a Florida Supreme Court ruling rocked the state’s workers’ compensation insurance system, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill aimed at holding down insurance rates for businesses.

The House, however, will need to reach agreement with the Senate on a final plan before the scheduled May 5 end of the annual legislative session. That will require lawmakers to bridge differences on thorny issues, including limits on attorney fees.

House Insurance & Banking Chairman Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, described the House version as “comprehensive reform” to the insurance system. Business groups have lobbied heavily for changes after state regulators approved a 14.5 percent rate increase that began taking effect Dec. 1.

“This is a good bill that takes care of injured workers [and] provides a competitive market,” Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said.

But many Democrats criticized the bill (HB 7085), saying it doesn’t do enough to provide benefits to injured workers.

“The injured worker deserves something, something, and they are not getting anything out of this bill,” said Rep. Sean Shaw, a Tampa Democrat and former state insurance consumer advocate.

Burgess disputed those arguments. “We are not ignoring the injured worker,” he said.

The House voted 82-37 to approve the bill, along almost straight party lines. All Republicans voted for the bill and were joined by Democrats Larry Lee of Port St. Lucie, Wengay Newton of St. Petersburg and Richard Stark of Weston.

A large part of the rate increase approved last year stemmed from an April 28 Supreme Court ruling that struck down strict limits on fees paid to workers’ attorneys. The ruling came in a case in which an attorney was awarded the equivalent of $1.53 an hour in successfully pursuing a claim for benefits for a worker injured in Miami.

Business groups contend that attorney fees drive up insurance rates and have pushed lawmakers to take steps to curb fees. That issue has dominated legislative debate, with groups such as plaintiffs’ attorneys fighting fee limits. They contend, at least in part, that such limits can prevent injured workers from getting legal representation to challenge insurer decisions about benefits.

The House bill would cap fees for workers’ attorneys at $150 an hour, while the Senate bill (SB 1582) would include a maximum of $250 an hour, an amount opposed by business groups.

The Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday approved the Senate bill (SB 1582), which is now ready to go to the full Senate.

Senate sponsor Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, emphasized that he is committed to trying to negotiate a final bill with the House, saying “everybody’s going to have to give a little.”

Along with the attorney fee issue, he said a key issue likely will focus on a House proposal to reduce reimbursements to hospitals and ambulatory-surgical centers for outpatient care provided to injured workers. Bradley said the Senate is not interested in taking savings “out of the hides” of hospitals.