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Capitol Chatter: Feb. 17

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  • | 6:54 p.m. February 16, 2012
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Workers comp loophole closing in Legislature
Closing a costly loophole in the state's workers compensation law appears to be heading toward approval in the Legislature.

The loophole allows physicians to dispense repackaged drugs from their offices and charge employers prices that go far beyond the statutory reimbursement for the same pharmaceuticals that are dispensed at pharmacies. The relabeled prescription drugs are sold at rates up to 679% more than what a pharmacy is allowed to charge under workers compensation.

The cost of the loophole falls back squarely on businesses, who could see their workers comp premiums go up 9% this year. The increase would drop to about 6.5% if the drug repackaging loophole is closed, according to backers, who say the problem is costing workers comp about $62 million a year.

Doctors and the groups representing them argue that dispensing medication in their offices helps ensure that patients get their drugs.

But the bill closing that hole by capping doctor's fees at the same rate at which pharmacies are reimbursed would not stop physicians from giving out the medicine. It would bring the prices in line. It passed House Health and Human Services Committee, its second committee of reference, and has passed a Senate committee.

The Workers' Compensation Coalition has made the physician drug repackaging issue one of its top priorities for the session.

Changing standards for expert witnesses
Legislation that changes the expert witness standards to conform them to the federal law and 36 other states passed a committee but is temporarily stalled on a parliamentary move.

Business organizations want to change to the standard that is more broadly accepted -- known as “Daubert” -- because it will get rid of the “junk science” they say is allowed under the current law, known as “Frye.” The Frye standard has resulted in too many businesses being gouged and has given the state a reputation as an easy place to sue companies, proponents of the bill say.

A Harris Interactive Poll ranked Florida 42nd in the nation in legal climate for businesses — not something state leaders are thrilled with. But the Florida Justice Association, the state's trial lawyers group, opposes the change along with Democrats.

Opponents say that the bill will cost prosecutors and judges time and energy to learn the new standard and apply it. But proponents say the cost will be minimal.

“Justice is worth the cost,” said Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart. “Whatever it will cost to make sure we have appropriate science in our courtrooms is worth the cost.”

Democrats tried several delaying tactics for the bill. When it was obvious it was going to pass out of committee, Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, who opposes the bill, voted in favor so he could use a parliamentary maneuver known as “retaining.” That keeps the bill in committee at least until the next committee meeting. Only someone voting in the majority can ask that it be retained.

The eyes have it in compromise
Two controversial healthcare issues that pit some of the most powerful special interests in Tallahassee against each other are now combined into a live-together, die-together bill.

But almost the entirety of the disputes between optometrists, doctors and trial lawyers revolves around money.

Optometrists and medical doctors who specialize in full-range eye care — ophthalmologists -- have been at odds for years over allowing optometrists to prescribe eye medicines. The Florida Medical Association has fought to keep the optometrists from being able to give out medicine.

However, the FMA has been fighting the trial lawyers over medical malpractice reform. And in a Senate committee, the two items were put together in one bill. The FMA agreed to support optometrists prescribing drugs while the optometrists support the medical malpractice reform — one element of which is to make it harder to prove that doctors are negligent for not performing extra diagnostic tests on patients.

The trial lawyers oppose the whole deal because they do not want medical malpractice reform. Their business relies on the most litigation-friendly laws, while doctors want the system less litigation-friendly.

The trial lawyer opposition made the bill difficult.

To get passage, Senate President Mike Haridopolos added Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, to the Health Regulation Committee for the meeting. Bennett's vote was the deciding vote in blocking attempts to kill the medical malpractice provisions — which had deadlocked at 4-4 previously.

Homestead expansion beaten in committee
A bill that would have given greater property tax exemptions for Florida homeowners was defeated in committee on a tie vote.

Currently, the first $50,000 of a house's value is exempted from property taxes if it is the Floridian's primary residence. The bill would have increased the exemption to 15% of a homestead property's value up to $200,000 and 10% thereafter up to $400,000. The goal was to give greater tax relief to more homeowners and help spur the housing market.

Local governments strongly opposed the added exemption because they rely heavily on property taxes to fund their operations. The change would have lowered taxable property value in every county and put local governments in the bind of having to cut more services or increase tax rates.


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