Florida Employers, Workers, Prepare for Workers' Comp Changes

Sept. 22, 2003
Oct. 1 is a day many Florida employers, workers and attorneys have circled on their calendars. That's the day sweeping changes to the state's workers' compensation laws take effect.

Gov. Jeb Bush signed the legislation in July, claiming it would increase benefits to the injured worker, reduce fraud in the system and increase access to quality health care for injured workers. It will also produce a 12.5 percent cost savings to the workers' compensation system, according to the state.

"Florida's workers' compensation system was crumbling under the weight of rampant fraud and skyrocketing insurance costs," Governor Bush said. "This bill means real relief for small businesses."

According to Bush, the measure:

  • Provides increased benefits for injured workers. The changes increase permanent partial disability benefits from 50 percent to 75 percent of the employee's compensation rate. The legislation also increases benefits for employees who have temporary disabilities but are still able to work at a reduced wage.
  • Provides for speedier claim resolution: The law eliminates the hourly attorney fee and replaces it with the contingency fee system, which provides attorneys with compensation based on the benefits received.
  • Reduces workers' compensation fraud: The bill increases penalties from first and second-degree misdemeanors to third and second-degree felonies for fraudulently gaming the worker's compensation system. The measure also increases the authority of the Division of Workers' Compensation to impose sanctions against carriers and employers.
  • Improves Access to medical care: As a means to get more experienced doctors to treat injured workers, the legislation increases the reimbursement schedule for certain specialty doctors and surgical physicians. The bill also includes more stringent reviews to ensure doctors are not unnecessarily treating patients for personal financial gain.
  • Increases workplace safety: The law continues the current discount for employers that maintain a qualified workplace safety program as well as requires all employees covered under a Joint Underwriting Association Policy to go through a safety at the workplace program.

These changes translate into an estimated $400 million in annual cost savings, based on a study by the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI). Those savings include an additional estimated 4 percent reduction on construction contractor workers' compensation insurance rates.

Attorneys representing plaintiffs with workers' compensation claims aren't pleased with the changes. In addition to limiting attorneys' fees, the measure will make it harder for workers to receive benefits for psychological injuries such as post-traumatic stress syndrome. "There are genuine psychiatric injuries out there, whether defense attorneys and judges and insurance companies want to believe it or not," Steve Kronenberg, a founding partner at Kelle Kronenberg Gilmartin Fichtel & Wander in Miami, told the Associated Press.

Some attorneys said they plan to sidestep the workers' compensation system entirely by filing civil lawsuits against the employers of injured workers, while others say they are moving their practices away from workers' compensation law entirely.

"I think it's going to be difficult for any claimant attorney to have a practice devoted exclusively to representing claimants,"Sean Culliton, founding partner of Anderson Culliton & Sullivan in Tallahassee, told the Associated Press. "My firm is branching out into other areas already."

Attorneys who represent employers in workers' compensation claims point out that workers were able to find attorneys before the system allowed for attorneys to bill hourly fees and noted they will be able to do so after the fee schedules are implemented.

"Why are these greedy people saying they need [hourly attorney fees] again?" asked Mary Ann Stiles, who heads Stiles Taylor & Grace, a workers' compensation defense firm based in Tampa.

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