January 1, 2001
With the 2001 legislative session set to begin in just seven weeks, the Task Force on Workers’ Compensation Administration is putting the finishing touches on its report to the governor and legislature. The report is scheduled to be finalized on Monday, January 22, 2001, giving employers less than a week to express their opinions to task-force members.
"We’ve reached consensus on several issues so far that will help reduce the costs of the system while increasing its efficiency," said task force member Mary Ann Stiles. "There are a few issues still up in the air, however, that, from the standpoint of employers, have to be addressed."
Stiles — the founding partner of the law firm of Stiles, Taylor & Grace, P.A., and one of the nation’s leading authorities on workers’ compensation law — is general counsel to Associated Industries of Florida (AIF). Appointed to the task force by Rep. John Thrasher, past speaker of the House, she brings to it the perspective of Florida’s employers who fund the workers’ compensation system.
Jon L. Shebel, AIF’s president and CEO, says he is relieved that Stiles is on the task force. "Our key battle this year will be reducing the costs of workers’ compensation, while at the same time increasing benefits to truly injured workers and making the system easier to use. The task force’s report is going to be an important part of that effort."
According to Stiles, there are three major unresolved issues of interest to employers. The first would limit litigation over the amount of an employee’s average weekly wage, which is used to calculate the employee’s indemnity benefits. Stiles would like to give judges of compensation claims the ability to review pay records to determine the average weekly wage without the involvement of attorneys.
The second undecided issue involves litigation over medical claims of $5,000 or less; again, Stiles would like legislation that would allow resolution of these claims without getting lawyers involved.
"In my experience in the system, I’ve seen far too many claimant lawyers aggressively litigate claims that involve nominal amounts," said Stiles. "The attorney ends up getting more money than the claimant."
Finally, Stiles would like the legislature to privatize the workers’ compensation mediation system, which would provide quicker resolution of disputes.
The task force was created in CS/SB 2532, which was enacted by the legislature last year. It was given "the purpose of examining the way in which the workers’ compensation system is funded and administered." Three members of the body were appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, with two each appointed by the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate.
The seven members of the task force, which met throughout the last half of 2000, gathered on Friday, January 12, to finalize its recommendations, which were due on January 15. According to Stiles, the group recessed at 5:30 that evening before it could reach a decision on all of the issues.
"Wringing the inefficiencies out of something as complicated as Florida’s workers’ compensation system isn’t easy," said Stiles. "We’re addressing problems that have built up over time, and I think we all felt that missing the deadline by a week was better than rushing the job."
Shebel is urging business people to follow this issue closely. "AIF has put together a complete package of workers’ comp reforms that extend beyond the purview of the task force," he said. "I hope that all of Florida’s business community will become active in helping real reform get passed. The first step should be contacting the members of the task force and letting them know what needs to be done."
Florida Business Insight will be covering the final recommendations of the task force when they becomes available. In the coming weeks, we’ll also be reporting on AIF’s full workers’ compensation reform package.