No-fault's future looks dim

 

Prospects for extending Florida's no-fault auto insurance law have sunk considerably since lawmakers canceled the special session planned for later this month.

bgarcia@MiamiHerald.com

Florida's controversial no-fault auto insurance law may indeed be on the road to extinction now that the special legislative session planned for later this month has been canceled.

Two senators and a group in the state House of Representatives have been working overtime in recent weeks to draft bills to revamp the no-fault law, which critics say breeds fraud and excessive billing for medical care after accidents.

Their goal was to have these bills heard during the special session, reforming the current law significantly or at least extending it for one more year.

The various groups that have an interest in keeping the law alive, such as the hospitals, had been upping the volume on their pleas to Gov. Charlie Crist that he demand lawmakers take up a no-fault bill in the special session. At the same time, no-fault critics have been heavily pressuring for no action.

The no-fault law is set to expire Oct. 1.

Sen. Bill Posey, a Republican from Rockledge, said Wednesday that he was involved in several key discussions and was expecting to have some consensus around a no-fault reform bill he's been drafting.

Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, has put forth another version of no-fault reform that's backed by the House Republican majority.

Sen. Rudy Garcia, a Republican from Hialeah, along with Rep. Julio Robaina from Miami, are dusting off another proposal to recast the no-fault system. This bill had been passed by both houses in May 2006, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

"The loss of PIP is going to be devastating to the people of this state. We can all expect to pay higher taxes, car insurance and health insurance, " said Cris Boyar, a Margate attorney who works with auto accident cases.

The current no-fault law requires drivers to buy a minimum of $10,000 of personal injury protection, also known as PIP, to cover medical expenses for a driver and passengers in an auto accident.

For drivers with no other form of health insurance, the PIP coverage can be beneficial. Insurers, however, argue it's not needed for consumers who have health insurance through work or pay for it on their own. They contend such drivers can save the money if they don't need to buy PIP coverage.

But Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer, focused Wednesday on the more than 20 percent of Floridians who don't have health insurance.

These drivers may not "have their injuries taken care of. That's a serious, serious environment to be in, " said Sink.

She added that if another driver is at fault for your injuries, "you will potentially have to hire a lawyer to get your medical bills paid, " which can be a long and disruptive process to eventually collect payment.

Crist refused to comment on Sink's prediction that Florida will move to a lawsuit-based insurance system in October, saying only: "We don't know that yet. Time will tell."

But he is in favor of extending the no-fault law.

"My interest is that $10,000 in coverage is better than none, and if we have an opportunity to move forward with it, we should, " he said.

However, without consensus from lawmakers on a reform track for no-fault insurance, Crist isn't willing to include it in any special session.

The state's hospital association renewed its call to lawmakers to extend the no-fault law.

If the no-fault law does expire, drivers must still carry a minimum of $10,000 in property damage liability coverage to register a car in Florida. But no other coverages would be required.

Florida would be the only state with no requirement for bodily injury liability coverage that pays for medical bills and property damage if a driver causes an accident.

Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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