- Associated Press - Thursday, May 11, 2017

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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May 4

The Miami Herald on how Gov. Rick Scott is stepping up to the opioid fight:

It’s unusual to hear Gov. Rick Scott declare a state of emergency in Florida for something other than an act of nature - a hurricane, Zika, runaway wildfires.

But on Wednesday, in light of thousands of overdose deaths in the state - many in Miami-Dade - Scott issued an executive order declaring that the man-made opioid epidemic has indeed created a state of emergency in Florida.

We praise Scott for stepping in to curb this human tragedy. He did the right thing in declaring it a statewide emergency - because it truly is.

You might not see it on your block, but ask paramedics, medical examiners or funeral home employees in just about any county, and they’ll tell you that the overdoses and, sadly, the bodies are piling up.

The governor was likely hearing the clarion call from Democrats in the Florida Senate who in a February letter urged him to act and declare a public-health emergency over the growing opioid crisis.

They were right to be alarmed by recent Florida Department of Law Enforcement data, showing that the number of heroin deaths in Florida rose nearly 80 percent from 2014 to 2015, while the number of fentanyl deaths rose 77 percent in the same time.

In 2015, the last year for which data is available, opioids were the direct cause of death of 2,538 Floridians and contributed to an additional 1,358 deaths, according to FDLE data compiled by the Florida Behavioral Health Association.

“No longer confined to small urban enclaves, heroin and fentanyl have become the scourge of communities throughout Florida, wreaking widespread devastation,” Sen. Oscar Braynon II, Senate minority leader, of Miami Gardens, wrote to Scott on behalf of the Democrats’ 15-member Senate caucus. “There is no family, no race, no ethnicity, no income level this epidemic cannot touch - and no effective state bulwark in place to stop it.” A most responsible move.

Scott did not issue the emergency then, but directed state health and law enforcement agencies last month to travel the state in search of solutions to the opioid epidemic.

It was a tepid first reaction - we have been in the grips of this problem for a good four years. Fortunately, Scott added muscle to his response, and on Wednesday declared the epidemic an emergency.

This allows him to direct immediate spending to target and combat the problem and allow public health officials to move in quickly.

And that’s the key to ending this crisis likely created by the eradication of pill mills in Florida.

Now, will Florida effectively spend the big bag of money that comes with the emergency order to wipe out this scourge?

The declaration allows the state to funnel more than $54 million in federal funds, via an Opioid State Targeted Response grant from the U.S. Health and Human Services over the next two years for prevention, treatment, and recovery services.

How efficiently that money is spent is imperative to wiping out this epidemic.

Scott instructed state Surgeon General Celeste Philip to keep on hand a standing order of Naloxen or Narcan, used to counteract opioid overdoses by first responders in emergency situations. More lives stand to be saved.

Of course, substance-abuse clinics, pain-reduction and mental health treatment must also be available if the lives of those saved are to have any higher quality to them.

Online: https://www.miamiherald.com/

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May 5

The Tampa Bay Times on gulf drilling protections:

President Donald Trump used the seventh anniversary of the BP oil disaster last month to set the stage for new and dangerous drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. He signed an executive order directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review an Obama administration plan that limited drilling in areas of the Arctic and southeast Atlantic between 2017 and 2022. This is a serious setback for the environment, public safety and energy policy.

Trump’s order could narrow federal protections against drilling on the Alaskan and Atlantic coasts, and open the door to new leasing in the Gulf of Mexico. He instructed Interior officials to consider revising the current schedule of oil and gas lease sales in the outer continental shelf with an eye toward maximizing production activity in the Alaska area, the southern and mid-Atlantic and the western and central gulf. He also ordered the fast-tracking of permitting to help determine the amount of offshore resources available, and he called for a review of several safety rules put into place after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. This all takes regulatory and energy policy in the wrong direction.

While the eastern gulf is still protected by a 2006 congressional agreement that bars drilling within 125 miles of the Panhandle and 230 miles of Tampa Bay, drilling in the central gulf could still endanger Florida. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has filed legislation to block Trump from opening up any new offshore areas for drilling until at least 2022. He also has filed legislation to extend the existing ban in the eastern gulf for an additional five years, to 2027. A Pentagon official also has noted the importance the drilling ban in the eastern gulf as a means to accommodate military training in the area.

Zinke’s review could take years. Still, any move to open up new areas for offshore drilling sends the wrong message to the industry. It could sap investment in renewables if companies see offshore leases as a cheap hedge for supply over the long term. The move also sends a signal that this administration will not act as a strong manager of sea and energy resources on federal land.

Trump also ordered a review of the Well Control Rule, which Obama put in place last year. The rule aims to improve standards for blowout preventers, the last line of defense for undersea gas wells at risk of exploding. In the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the blowout preventer failed, leading to a series of reforms imposed by the Obama administration that targeted both the equipment and training involved in offshore rigs. Trump ordered Zinke to review whether the rule was necessary.

These are backward steps for a nation and an industry that still are learning the impacts from the worst spill in U.S. history. Congress should not be quick to authorize new offshore drilling, and it certainly should ensure the hard-won safety reforms are not sacrificed in the process.

Online: https://www.tampabay.com/

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May 5

The Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale on property insurance claims:

Because of the Legislature’s inaction, Floridians will get no property insurance relief this year.

There is debate about how the state should respond to what insurers contend are excessive claims for non-emergency water damages. Unfortunately, the Legislature didn’t even have the debate.

The issue is assignment of benefits - when homeowners authorize contractors to negotiate insurance claims on their behalf. It happens regularly with health insurance. A doctor or a hospital pays the insurer’s designated amount to the insurer. In most cases, there are no problems.

With homeowner coverage, however, insurers say the system is being abused in claims for non-emergency water damages. Policyholders assign benefits to contractors, who hire lawyers. According to the insurance industry, contractors overbill, the carrier denies the claim, the contractor’s lawyers sue, and the carrier has to settle, thus overpaying for the work and paying legal fees. Companies then raise rates.

The Florida House passed legislation that would have made it harder for policyholders to assign benefits and would have limited attorney fees. Senate Banking and Insurance Committee Chairwoman Anitere Flores, R-Miami, however, wanted any reform bill to include mandatory rate reductions. When the industry wouldn’t go along, Flores refused to consider any Senate bill.

As with gambling, the Legislature kicked property insurance reform down the road for another year. Unlike gambling, however, property insurance affects most Floridians, directly or indirectly. Property owners pay higher premiums. Landlords raise rents to cover those increases. Home insurance costs are the dry rot in the state’s economy and quality of life.

Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Hollywood, filed an amendment to the House bill that would have delayed rate increases for a year. After that, companies would have had to reduce rates by 6.5 percent, in tandem with the anti-fraud provisions. Jenne chose 6.5 percent because state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. filed for an increase in that amount, citing non-emergency water claims.

Jenne, who notes that he is not an attorney, knew that his bill had no chance. He wanted to make a point for the eventual debate. “The fraud is real,” Jenne told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board. But the House bill, he said, was too friendly to the insurance industry.

As with most big issues, there’s a potential compromise. Here is what we suggest:

First, the Legislature should get an objective study of non-emergency water claims. Most information that guides insurance legislation comes from the insurance industry or from groups the industry finances. Similarly, most information on the other side of the issue tends to come from trial lawyers.

With credible information, the Legislature could craft legislation aimed at stopping what seems to be the usual small group of “bad actors” committing most of the abuses. The goal might be to impose restrictions on assignment of benefits for non-emergency cases only.

Almost certainly, however, any bill would have to include mandatory rate reduction. If a company raises rates because of the abuse, ending the abuse should result in a proportional decrease.

The Legislature’s handling of auto insurance offers a lesson. In 2012, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart - now the chamber’s president - sponsored legislation to end the no-fault system that requires all drivers to purchase Personal Injury Protection coverage. Given the projected billions in savings, Negron asked for mandatory rate cuts.

Insurance lobbyists pushed back. So did Gov. Rick Scott. The result was a bill that contained most of what the industry wanted, but set only targets for premium reductions. Five years and several court cases later, Florida drivers are still waiting to see those lower premiums.

Compare the inaction on those insurance issues with the Legislature’s response to Florida Supreme Court rulings on attorneys’ fees that raised the cost of workers compensation insurance, which employers pay. House Republicans passed a bill that limits fees for lawyers who represent injured workers but not for those who represent employers. As of Thursday, the Senate version had passed three committees and was headed for a final vote.

The Wall Street Journal ran two editorials critical of Flores for not caving to the insurance industry. In fact, the Legislature has done countless favors for insurers, such as eliminating coverage in basic policies for perils such as mold and sinkholes.

As Jenne said, the Legislature must find “balance” between the industry and consumers. That search starts with data that doesn’t come from the industry.

Online: https://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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