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Diagnosis for 12.9.22: Checking the pulse of Florida health care news and policy

Welcome back to Diagnosis, a vertical that focuses on the crossroads of health care policy and politics.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is signaling he is poised to act against manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines.

During a Republican holiday gathering at the Governor’s mansion last weekend the Governor told a group that “we are going to hold these manufacturers accountable for this mRNA, because they said there are no side effects, and we know there have been a lot.”

He then cited a Florida analysis released in October by State Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo about an increased risk of cardiac-related deaths among males 18-39 after taking a COVID-19 mRNA vaccine. That analysis has drawn sharp criticism from medical experts as flawed.

DeSantis added again “we’re going to do some stuff to bring accountability there.”

Ron DeSantis vows to go after drug companies for COVID vaccine accountability.

When asked about the Governor’s comments, a spokesperson suggested staying tuned; more details should be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

Social media amplified DeSantis’ remarks last weekend, which drew attention from conservative media outlets and may point to a new round of action designed to draw attention to his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Florida early on did shut down businesses and in-person classes, DeSantis pushed to reopen the state much earlier than most of the country, including opening schools. He also opposed vaccine mandates and pushed to pass a law that bans the requirement that people supply proof of vaccination known as “vaccine passports.”

DeSantis emphasized his COVID-19 record during his re-election campaign and he and other Republicans say it has led to people moving to Florida.

I welcome your feedback, questions and especially your tips. You can email me at SextonHealthNewsletter@gmail.com or call me at 850-251-2317.

— Here comes FSU Health —

It’s being called the most ambitious intellectual project Florida State University (FSU) has ever pursued. And FSU President Richard McCullough predicted FSU Health would “reshape patient care, education and research throughout Florida.”

FSU Health is the moniker the university is giving a new $125 million medical research center in Tallahassee as well as the overall goal for FSU College of Medicine, other health care professional programs and research to move beyond Tallahassee and into northwest Florida and the rest of the state.

“FSU Health will reshape patient care, education and research throughout Florida,” McCullough said. “The Florida Panhandle is booming and the possibilities — and needs — in our region have never been greater. We are at a very exciting time as we lay the foundation for this monumental project.”

Richard McCullough predicts FSU Health will ‘reshape patient care.’

Lawmakers agreed to supply $125 million in the fiscal year 2022-2023 budget to fund the five-story building. The building will be found on TMH’s campus.

FSU also is expanding its footprint in Panama City, where a branch location is located. FSU, TMH and St. Joe Company announced in spring 2021 plans to develop an 87-acre health care campus nestled close to Latitude Margaritaville Watersound, a master-planned 55-plus living community in Panama City. The campus will include an urgent care center, a 100-bed hospital and facilities for research and educational opportunities.

“We have a real opportunity to create meaningful change for Panhandle residents who currently drive several hours to Tallahassee, Gainesville or Mobile for their medical needs,” FSU Vice President for Research Stacey Patterson said. “The FSU Health initiative can create better care options while also creating jobs, educational opportunities and a major expansion of research and development in the region.”


It’s the defense fees (duh) —

As business groups look to the upcoming Legislative Session to reinstate limits on what injured workers can pay their attorneys, a new state report shows it’s not the injured workers who are driving legal costs in the system.

The amount of money injured workers spent on plaintiffs’ attorneys during the state fiscal year 2021-2022 decreased by nearly 1.9% over the prior year, while insurance company defense fees increased by nearly 5.6% from 2020-2021, according to the report released by the Office of the Judges of Compensation Claims.

In all, $504,243,763 was paid in legal fees in a system that is supposed to be self-executing. That’s a 2% increase over $494,505,716 spent on plaintiffs’ attorneys and defense attorneys in the fiscal year 2020-21.

Slightly more than 53% of the overall attorneys’ fees paid between and June 30, 2022, were paid to defense attorneys.

Workers’ compensation is a no-fault system meant to protect workers and employers. It is supposed to provide workers who are injured on the job access to medical benefits they need to be made whole. In exchange for providing those benefits, employers generally cannot be sued in court for causing injuries. The system is generally set up to avoid lawsuits, but disputes about benefits often lead to legal fights. When they do arise, Florida relies on the OJCC to mediate and/or adjudicate the cases.

Workers’ compensation premiums have decreased in Florida for six consecutive years with Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier last month ordering an average 8.4% reduction in rates for new and renewed policies effective Jan. 1, 2023.

David Altmaier is again pushing for lower workers’ comp rates. Image via Colin Hackley.

Florida Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Government Affairs Carolyn Johnson told Florida Politics at the time that the reductions were welcome news for Florida’s businesses. She added that she was hopeful rates could continue to decrease in the future and cost drivers that still are in the workers’ compensation system, “like uncapped attorney fees,” don’t interfere.

For more than a decade plaintiffs’ fees in Florida’s workers’ compensation system were capped at 20% of the first $5,000 in benefits secured, 15% of the next $5,000, 10% of the rest to be provided during the first decade and 5% of the benefits secured after those first 10 years. The law does not restrict what insurers can spend defending workers’ compensation cases.

The Florida Supreme in 2016 issued Castellanos v. Next Door Company, a 5-2 decision that resulted in the elimination of the strict fee caps on attorney’s fees injured workers accrue. Regulators later approved a 14.5% rate increase, largely based on that decision as well as another 2016 ruling, Westphal v. City of Saint Petersburg, in which a two-year ban on temporary total disability benefits was ruled unconstitutional.

The lengthy 300-page OJCC report provides insights into the entire workers’ compensation, not just attorneys’ fees. For example, judges presiding over compensation claims authorized worker benefits in excess of $1 billion in FY 21-22.

The report also shows the number of workers’ compensation cases in FY 21-22 was up from the previous year, but the overall number of petitions filed is still below the levels right before the COVID-19 pandemic.

There were nearly 31,000 cases filed — a nearly 3.8% increase from the previous year — and nearly 72,000 petitions overall, which was a 3% increase. (Sometimes an injured worker can file multiple petitions connected to a single incident.)

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