Florida, like the rest of the nation, is struggling under the weight of these extraordinary economic times. The strain is felt even more keenly as families are putting together their budgets in the New Year, forgoing a much-needed family vacation or putting off a non-essential purchase.
As families look to cut unnecessary costs out of their budgets, there is one item that should receive close attention. When you look at your auto-insurance bill, there is an embedded cost for Personal Insurance Protection (PIP). It is a $10,000 coverage plan that all Florida motorists must carry according to the law. The original concept behind PIP was sound: injured drivers could receive prompt payment of medical bills for the treatment of auto-accident injuries which eliminated the need for consumers to litigate their claims in court.
What started out as a consumer protection has sadly created a cottage industry and feeding frenzy among unscrupulous medical clinics, criminal-fraud rings and some trial lawyers. If you need any proof, look no further than your highway commute littered with auto-accident solicitation billboards or catch one of the multiple TV commercials offering a lawyer or medical referral if you’ve been in an automobile accident. What these folks really want is to tap into your PIP coverage using the many loopholes in the law to enrich themselves.
The numbers tell a compelling story. Since 2004-2005, the number of drivers in Florida has been stable and crashes have actually declined. Yet between 2006 and 2010, the amount of money paid out in PIP claims increased by nearly $1 billion. How could that be?
For starters, look to trial lawyers. In that same period, PIP litigation increased 387 percent, according to the state’s insurance consumer advocate. Today, there are nearly 40,000 PIP lawsuits pending in Florida courts.
These lawsuits are almost never between the consumer and their insurer—in the vast majority of cases, insured drivers received prompt medical treatment. These suits are filed by medical clinics and trial lawyers, often working in tandem, over small dollar amounts in dispute. Trial lawyers are incentivized to file PIP suits because they can win one-way attorney fees and ask judges to increase their fees by 250 percent. The average trial-lawyer fee paid out in a PIP case in 2006 was $4,756. By 2011, the average fee had skyrocketed to $60,694—a 1,300 percent increase.
Another source of soaring costs is questionable medical clinics, which often only take patients with PIP coverage. In Florida, medical providers on average charge higher fees for each PIP claim, and perform more medical procedures for each claim, than the national average. In 2007, legislators tried to rein in medical costs by enacting a medical-fee schedule, but clinics got around that by simply increasing the number of procedures they performed—whether the patients needed them or not.
You are paying for all of this. Many hard-working families have seen their PIP premiums increase by hundreds of dollars and risk being priced out of this mandatory coverage—which threatens to increase the number of uninsured motorists in the state.
The governor, chief financial officer and legislative leaders have heard the cries of consumers and are now at the verge of taking action to finally fix the PIP law. It is no surprise that those who have benefitted from the broken system do not want it fixed. Doing nothing is the wrong course of action. PIP should be repaired because it can be a tremendous tool to ensure Floridians will receive medical benefits quickly and will be protected from the cost of frivolous medical claims and lawsuits. Consumers should be very concerned about any proposals that are pushed by those who have been responsible for driving up the cost of their PIP rate.
Auto insurers are ready to work for reform and understand that they, too, will be held accountable by their consumers and by policymakers in Tallahassee. If the Legislature acts this year, we believe these runaway premium increases will stop, consumers will be better protected from fraud, and healthy competition will be restored to the Florida auto-insurance market.