Small businesses could be blindsided by end of no-fault
By Risa Polansky
The impending sunset of Florida's no-fault insurance law could place a heavy burden on business owners — and some running small operations may not see it coming, experts say.
Once the state statute that provides for medical coverage to motorists regardless of fault expires Oct. 1, taking down with it the requirement that all motorists purchase personal injury protection, "the first line of defense will be health insurance," said state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. Employers' health insurance plans will have to cover injuries to workers arising out of auto accidents
She anticipates an increase in insurance premiums as a result. "Guess who bears the cost of those premiums?" she said. "You, the business owner."
But this is something that may not yet be on the radar screen for those heading small companies, said Marisa Feito, president of marketing and public relations firm Innovica and head of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's small business committee.
While large companies have the staff and resources to devote to keeping abreast of outside issues and extensively researching insurance policies, "that's one of the challenges when you have a small business," she said, as a small business owner must act as "your own human resources department, your own finance department."
Area small businesses may not be considering the sunset of the law's effect on their budgets, she said, because "it could be they are so pressed with day-to-day issues of running a business, they don't have time to plan ahead."
Phillis Oeters, head of the chamber's advocacy group and corporate vice president of government and community relations for Baptist Health South Florida, said it's likely the chamber could host education programs for businesses as well as "allow our member companies the ability to have access to companies that want to provide it (health insurance)."
However, because no-fault is technically not dead, none of this is set in stone.
Legislators could take up the matter during a special session next month, but the session is to center largely on budget issues and Personal Injury Protection is not guaranteed to be addressed.
Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale last week proposed a bill she hopes will be heard at the session, according to her office.
It's geared toward recovering Personal Injury Protection while minimizing fraud — a large point of contention with the law.
The chamber has actively been fighting for an extension through letters to legislators, Ms. Oeters said, though it has not taken a position as to how no-fault could best serve residents without opening the door for fraud.
Educating local business owners about what to expect from the death of no-fault may become a priority for the small business committee as it plans for future programs, Ms. Feito said, although "it's not something that people talk about at this moment."
But businesses should be talking, Ms. Sink said.
Her Web site, www.fldfs.com/nofault, offers a number of educational resources designed to prepare Floridians for "life without no-fault insurance."
Among advice offered on the site: "employers will need to plan for possible increases in health insurance premiums to pay for medical costs for injuries to their employees arising out of auto accidents."
Twenty percent of Florida motorists are uninsured, Ms. Sink said, and, in Florida, "we don't know a world without PIP."
Hospitals, too, are set to take a hit, Ms. Oeters said.
Baptist Health South Florida is set, she said, to lose about $17 million when it no longer collects from Personal Injury Protection.
It means "the death of common sense to have people visiting the emergency room if they're not true emergencies," she said. "Accessing the emergency room is the most expensive part of entering into healthcare, and of course having the PIP insurance would allow injured individuals to go to their physicians and emergency rooms if they need it."
Without insurance, "the only access to healthcare they have is the emergency room," Ms. Oeters said.
The loss of no-fault is also a direct path to litigation, Ms. Sink said.
"If there's a dispute, we're into the world of lawsuits," she said. "We're going to be in the Wild West again."
She would like legislators to at least grant the law a six-month extension, she said, to allow more time to research the way the other 35 states without Personal Injury Protection operate and find out how best to protect citizens.
September's session provides "possible window," she said, although "as of this very minute, PIP is dead."
Floridians, she said, "must get ourselves prepared for the post-no-fault experience."
This means hospitals, business owners and residents alike, Ms. Oeters said.
"All of us pick up the cost on this," she said. "The cost of care increases."