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More Than 100 March for AOB Reform

March 20th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

125 supporters seeking to reform Assignment of Benefits contracts, which assign insurance benefits to third party contractors, marched to the state Capitol this morning.

Insurers have been fighting to close loopholes in the contracts, which they say has resulted in frivolous lawsuits. Under current law insurance companies often have to pay a contractors legal fees when suing the insurer.

They say the excessive litigation has driven up rates for consumers.

“Consumers across Florida have experienced first hand the abuse of AOB practices in our state and as a result, the home and auto insurance rates that are skyrocketing and costing us all as Floridians. This strong show of solidarity sends a loud message to lawmakers, that something must be done to stop assignment of benefits abuse and it must be done this session,” said Executive Director of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, David Hart.

The group delivered 10,000 signed petitions demanding action from lawmakers. This session Florida’s Chief Financial Officer has set AOB Reform as his top priority.

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House Poised to Pass Comprehensive Healthcare Package

March 20th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The House is expected to pass its comprehensive healthcare reform package Thursday.

Florida’s House Speaker Jose Oliva has vowed to end what he calls the “Health Care industrial complex”.

Oliva says if hospitals faced more competition, their prices would be forced to come down.

“It is time for us to bring real reform,” said Oliva on the opening day of session. “We are now spending almost as much on healthcare as we are spending on all other things combined.”

To prove his point, the Speaker brought in healthcare researcher Chris Pope to brief house members on Wednesday.

“Hospital costs are enormous,” said Pope.

Pope likens current local hospitals to small scale monopolies.

“It’s important to support these hospitals and it’s important to support access to essential care, but we need to have accountability for this,” said Pope. “Just handing over money and market power and trusting hospitals are going to put the money where we want them to put the money, that hasn’t worked out very well.”

Another idea being pushed this year would expand the scope of duties advanced registered nurse practitioners could perform without supervision from a doctor.

The bill is facing opposition from some doctors, who say the expertise doctors bring is essential to ensure quality care.

“Most challenging diagnosis in family medicine are those in early undifferentiated stages, when there are often only subtle difference between a serious and minor ailment,” said Orlando Doctor Nikita Shah.

But bill sponsor Rep. Carey Pigman says 22 other states have already made the change without seeing any problems.

“So this is sort of calling it on the table,” said Pigman. “If we’ve not seen a benefit, there’s not some measurable benefit from the supervision, why do we tolerate any of the cost?”

While hospital reforms are moving quickly through the House, there are signs of trouble in the Senate, which nearly killed a bill that would make it easier for new hospitals to come to an area earlier this week.

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Former Female Prisoners Advocate for Better Conditions

March 20th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Former female prisoners rallied at the State Capitol Wednesday morning in support of legislation that would require Florida prisons to provide feminine hygiene products to inmates.

Supporters say female prisoners are often provided with a limited supply and forced to pay for, or even outright denied additional mensural products.

“For a woman who has resources, I had support, who had to actually quantify my cycle, which meant put used pads in a brown paper bag to show a male officer in order for them to get me more pads, and the inhumane and disgusting treatment that I felt, I couldn’t imagine what women felt and went through who didn’t have resources,” said Topeka K. Sam, Director of Dignity for Incarcerated Women.

The bill would also make changes to how male corrections staff are allowed to handle female inmates.

It also increases reporting of inappropriate incidents between male staff and female prisoners.

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New Hazing Law Aims to Incentivize Reporting Incidents

March 20th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Fraternity members who haze one another would have an incentive to call for emergency help under legislation filed in response to an FSU student’s death in November 2017.

The parents and others believe their son would have lived if an immunity provision was law at the time.

Fraternity Pledge Andrew Coffey was forced to drink an entire bottle of Wild Turkey before passing out on a couch in this off campus house.

Instead of calling for help, fraternity members left for hours before returning to find him dead.

Even then they hesitated to call 9-1-1.

“It is written to save someone’s life,” said Representative Chip LaMarca, who is sponsoring new legislation the would provide immunity to the first person who calls for help in a case of a hazing incident.

LaMarca filed the bill in response to Coffey’s death. When asked if he believed it would have saved the student’s life he responded, “Absolutely, 100 percent.”

State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith says students also came to him.

“And they want to make sure that if they call 9-1-1 for assistance that the student is not going to get in trouble for trying to help another student. Maybe the reality is that they were under age drinking. Maybe they were doing illegal drugs,” said Smith.

Florida is one of only ten states that doesn’t provide immunity to the first one who calls.

17 months after the death of their son, the Coffey family is still visibly shaken.

“We’d like to ask you to pay very close attention to this bill. That you enhance it…and make it so this never happens again,” said Andrew’s father, Tom Coffey

The legislation also expands the law to allow fraternity leadership who help plan a hazing, but aren’t there to be charged with the crime.

Nine were charged in the hazing death of Andrew Coffey.

The Pi Kappa Phi fraternity was closed, and FSU instituted tough new standards for Greek life on campus.

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Amendment 4 Legislation Already Splitting Left and Right

March 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

An estimated 1.4 million felons in Florida are waiting to see how the Legislature implements Amendment 4, so they will know if they’re eligible to have their voting rights automatically restored.

The first bill proposed in the House is drawing criticism from Democrats and Amendment 4 authors for being too restrictive.

The Legislature’s role in implementing amendment 4 comes down to three basic questions.

What offenses fall under murder?

What crimes are a sexual offense?

And when has a felon completed their sentence?

The House implementing bill cleared its first committee with a vote down party lines.

“The will over the voter was to not go as far as this bill has gone,” said Democratic Representative Michael Grieco.

Sponsor James Grant says he included a broad definition of disqualifying sexual offenses and completion of sentence in an attempt to say as true to the amendment language as possible.

“If I was to step in and start parsing intent and thoughts and objections or objectives of different stakeholders, you’re just carving up the deer and you’ve lost sight of what is actually the guide,” said Grant.

But amendment authors say, requiring all court costs and fees be paid before a person becomes eligible for restoration is problematic.

“We know that that impacts thousands and thousands of people all across the state, especially people of color, people without a lot of resources,” said Neal Volz with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

Governor Ron DeSantis says he doesn’t want the Legislature to miss the target and end up back in court.

He says it all comes down to intent.

“The question is though, are those exclusions,” said DeSantis. “What did the average voter construe that to mean?”

The Senate is expected to unveil its implementing bill next week.

It’s expected to be less restrictive than the House.

Under the clemency system, which has previously been the only avenue for rights restoration, felons were only obligated to pay fines and fees if they were specifically included in a judge’s sentence.

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Former FBI Director Criticizes Canadian Drug Importation Plan

March 19th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation to allow Floridians access to prescription drugs from Canada is a top priority of the Governor.

The legislation has cleared committees in both the House and Senate, and Big Pharma is starting to pay attention.

Reducing drug costs is high on Governor ron DeSantis’ to do list.

“Now, I want Floridians to be able to purchase prescription drugs from Canada at lower prices,” said DeSantis.

The legislation has cleared two committees in the House.

”It’s a little bit of a shell game,” said former FBI Director Louis Freeh.

The Partnership for Safe Medicines, a Pharmacutical industry funded coalition brought in Freeh to argue against the idea.

“The Canadians have been very clear. They said we don;t inspect them, we’re not going to inspect them,” said Freeh.

Not only are the drugs untested, says Freeh.

He contends neither bill provides penalties for illegal importation.
“There is no provisions for criminal activity. They don’t even mention criminal activities,” said Freeh.

The Governor calls the concerns overblown.

“You know, the places where we would be importing would be certified as being safe,” said DeSantis. “And obviously thats all we want to do that. But I think a lot of that, quite frankly, is people who don;t want to allow us to have access to cheaper drugs, and so we’re going to press forward with it.”

At an opioid workshop, former Pinellas County Detective Mark Baughman said cheaper pills could lead to bigger problems like more narcotics.

“It does. Exactly. And there are more pills in play then,” said Baughman.

Even if the plan is eventually signed in Florida law, the Federal government would still have to give its stamp of approval.

The federal law allowing states to get Canadian drugs was approved by Congress in 2003, but the Federal Government has never approved a request to allow the drugs to be imported.

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Governor and Cabinet Call Tallahassee Home for First Time in Eight Years

March 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis is living full time in the Governor’s mansion, the Attorney General and Ag Commissioner also live in the Capital, and the CFO spends four days a week in Tallahassee.

It’s the first time in almost eight years the elected officials actually live where the law requires.

Florida law requires the Governor and three elected Cabinet officers to live in Tallahassee, at the seat of government.

“I can’t just buy another House. That’s not the way it is,” said DeSantis.

The Governor, First Lady and their two children do actually live in the Governor’s mansion.

“Everyone is saying, how’s the Mansion? It’s great,” said First Lady, Casey DeSantis.

A search of public records for the previous officer holders found only Governor Rick Scott ever even registered to vote here, one of the tests of residency, and he only stayed registered for nine months.

We could find no public records that showed the previous Cabinet members ever set up residency in the State Capitol.

“I have become a registered voter here in Leon County. I have,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.

Attorney General Ashley Moody moved her entire family to the capital city.

“When I took the oath of office, I thought it was important for me to be here,” said Moody. “Make sure that I could dig in. Start learning the operations of our office, and be here full time.”

Insiders suggest that having the Governor and Cabinet actually live here gives them more face time, not phone time with their staffs.

They say that makes for better government.

Ron Sachs worked for then Governor Lawton Chiles, who lived and died in the Mansion.

He says having elected officials living here is good for everyone.

“Well, I think it connects them to the community. It makes the community feel more connected to them,” said Sachs.

That connection didn’t take place over the last eight years.

No one publicly criticized the former Governor and Cabinet over their residence, but Capitol insiders say having them at the Capitol gives everyone more face time.

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Democrats Say Sanctuary City Ban Would Hurt Venezuelan Refugees

March 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida Democrats are using the political crisis in Venezuela to say banning sanctuary cites would actually hurt the South American refugees.

A bipartisan bill in the State Legislature would officially call on Congress to do more, but Democrats say Republicans can’t have it both ways.

Venezuelan Floridans have protested at the State Capitol, demanding more action be taken to help the people of Venezuela as the political crisis in the county worsens.

“We try to show the world the real crisis in Venezuela,” said protester Erika Rojas with Ola Tallahassee.

A bipartisan bill scheduled for a vote on the House floor this week would officially call on Congress to do more to fight against the Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

“Not having food, going into the garbage, going into the gutters, laying in the street. Do we as human beings, do we like seeing this stuff? No, they’re human beings we’ve got to help them,” said Rep. John Cortes.

While supporting for the Venezuelan people isn’t a controversial political stance among Florida lawmakers, Democrats say a Republican led bill that would ban sanctuary cities in the state would harm refugees.

“It will escalate deportations of Venezuelans back to their home country where they will starve or be victims of violence,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith.

But Senator Joe Gruters, sponsor of the sanctuary city ban, says the concerns are overstated.

“Well my guess is if they’re fleeing Venezuela, they’re not criminals,” said Gruters.

Another Bill would request congress grant temporary protected status to Venezuelan refugees.

That would in theory protect them from deportation under the sanctuary city ban.

“So that those Venezuelans will rest assured when they arrive in the United States that they will not be deported back to Venezuela,” said Smith.

There are currently 38,000 Venezuelans in Florida, but that number could increase exponentially if a temporary protected status were to be granted.

In 2018 the Florida Legislature ordered the State Pension Fund to sell all of its investments in the Venezuelan Government.

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40 Victims of the Dozier School For Boys Find Final Resting Place

March 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The remains of 40 boys who died of suspected abuse at the Dozier School for Boys in Mariana were reinterred in what will likely be their final resting place Saturday afternoon.

For more than ten years a group of survivors of the Dozier School for Boys, known as the White House Boys, have been fighting to expose abuses that plagued the school for more than 100 years.

Now the last of more than 50 unidentified boys unearthed at the school in 2015

have been reinterred in a Tallahassee Cemetery; far away from the grounds where they suffered unspeakable horrors.

“This is it. This is the most important part of it all,” said Jerry Cooper, President of the White House Boys.

For many of the White House Boys, the burial was another step towards finding peace.

“I’ve gotten closer. Not 100%, but I’m there. I’m getting closer,” said James “Harley” DeNyke, who attended the school from 1964 to 1966.

“We’ve got 40 in the ground now that we don’t have to worry about anymore,” said Pastor Johnny Lee Gaddy, who spent five years at Dozier from 1967 to 1971.

“[I] Very easily could have been one of these kids, but god spared me. I’m a survivor and I wish they had been too,” said Cooper.

Each grave is marked with a number, in case any future attempts to identify the remains are successful families can be notified.

“These boys are gone, but they will never ever ever be forgotten,” said Cooper.

Even as the final casket was lowered into the ground, survivors know their work isn’t finished.

Plans for a possible memorial at the State Capitol are in the works.

Many also believe there could be more than 100 boys still at Dozier, that have not been discovered.

The State Legislature issued an official apology for the atrocities committed at the Dozier School for Boys in 2017.

As part of the agreement, the state has covered the cost for the reentering the remains found at the school.

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Smokable Marijuana Only the First Step Towards Affordability

March 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

 

The bill allowing patients to smoke medical marijuana is on the Governor’s desk, but patient access and affordability are still major issues plaguing the industry. 

Some lawmakers believe the entire distribution system needs to be changed.

Patients will be able to smoke their medical marijuana, once the Governor signs the bill and agencies develop and implement rules…Likely by July first. 

But State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith says there’s still more work to be done.

“There’s sick patients out there right now who have not enrolled in the legal medical cannabis process or program. They are still buying cannabis on the street illegally because the legal way is too expensive,” said Smith.

Part of the cost patients face includes doctors visits every 210 days, plus $75 license renewals every year.

Loosening the burden on patients is one possibility, but Jeff Sharkey with the Medical Marijuana business association says the best solution is to create more completion in the market place.

“Insurance companies don’t offer a copay assistance with the doctor visitation, with the medicine itself,” said Sharkey.

Availability is limited due to a lack of licensed growers, only 14 in the state. 

By law they have to control every aspect of the process from seed to sale, but doing away with the vertically integrated system would allow for more businesses to compete .

“If you want to be a retailer, if you want to be a processor, an extractor you can do that with a cultivator,” said Sharkey.

Lawmakers believe some changes will be made to the marijuana distribution system this year, but they also believe it will be a multi year effort.

There all is also a Legislative push to make it easier for banks to back medical marijuana companies. 

Currently the industry is almost completely cash only.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Smokable Marijuana Only the First Step Towards Affordability

March 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The bill allowing patients to smoke medical marijuana is on the Governor’s desk, but patient access and affordability are still major issues plaguing the industry.

Some lawmakers believe the entire distribution system needs to be changed.

Patients will be able to smoke their medical marijuana, once the Governor signs the bill and agencies develop and implement rules…Likely by July first.

But State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith says there’s still more work to be done.

“There’s sick patients out there right now who have not enrolled in the legal medical cannabis process or program. They are still buying cannabis on the street illegally because the legal way is too expensive,” said Smith.

Part of the cost patients face includes doctors visits every 210 days, plus $75 license renewals every year.

Loosening the burden on patients is one possibility, but Jeff Sharkey with the Medical Marijuana business association says the best solution is to create more completion in the market place.

“Insurance companies don’t offer a copay assistance with the doctor visitation, with the medicine itself,” said Sharkey.

Availability is limited due to a lack of licensed growers, only 14 in the state.

By law they have to control every aspect of the process from seed to sale, but doing away with the vertically integrated system would allow for more businesses to compete .

“If you want to be a retailer, if you want to be a processor, an extractor you can do that with a cultivator,” said Sharkey.

Lawmakers believe some changes will be made to the marijuana distribution system this year, but they also believe it will be a multi year effort.

There all is also a Legislative push to make it easier for banks to back medical marijuana companies.

Currently the industry is almost completely cash only.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Visit Florida Budget Battle Heating Up

March 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s lead tourism agency could lose $75 million in state funding in if lawmakers don’t reauthorize the program, which appears possible.

Funding for Visit Florida is shaping up to become a contentious issue between the House and Senate.

“When we have issues come up like Mathew, Michael and Irma as well as red tide, they make sure that people know that we are open for business,” said State Senator Joe Gruters, who is sponsoring legislation to continue funding the program.

In the bill’s final Senate committee hearing Thursday, State Senators from areas hit by natural disasters said the program is important.

“Visit Florida has been there in all of the best times, but most specifically in all of the worst times,” said Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto.

Visit Florida is no stranger to controversy.

Questionable spending decisions like paying Miami rapper Pit Bull $1 million to appear in an ad have led some to question whether the state is getting a return on its investment.

While the Senate is already prepared to take Visit Florida funding to the chamber floor, the House hasn’t scheduled it for a single hearing.

House Speaker Jose Oliva doesn’t intend to change that.

“We need to fund Visit Florida until it expires and beyond that we haven’t had any intention,” said Oliva.

Visit Florida CEO Dana Young argues Florida gets $2 back in tax revenue generated by tourists for every dollar spent on the program.

“If the budget were cut to zero there would be a hole in the budget next year, rough numbers of $160 million out of general revenue,” said Young.

With less money that could mean cuts somewhere else.
Governor Ron DeSantis requested $75 million for Visit Florida in his proposed budget.

He says he’s confident the legislature will work out a deal to keep the advertisements flowing.

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Florida Lawmakers Again Debating When Life Begins

March 14th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The question of when human life begins is a debate returning to the State Capitol.

Legislation prohibiting abortions after a fetal heart beat could be detected, which is usually around six weeks, could be a test case for newly appointed justices on the Florida Supreme Court.

In a 1989 Florida’s Supreme Court upheld a teenager’s right to her own body, saying a fetus was a specialized set of cells.

It remains law today, but now state lawmakers are trying to test the court and its three newly appointed members with a bill prohibiting abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected.

“When there’s a heartbeat, there is life. It’s always been the symbol of the presence of life,” said Senate sponsor Dennis Baxley.

Asked if six weeks was enough time for a woman to act if she wanted an abortion, the sponsor suggested she might have to face the consequences.

“There was an intentional act. A decision made,” said Baxley.

Pro Choice activists gathered quickly to protest a press conference held by bill sponsors Thursday.

“At that point of a woman’s pregnancy she might not even know that she is pregnant yet,” said Representative Anna Eskamani.

House Sponsor Mike Hill believes, if passed, the legislation will be challenged before the Supreme Court of Florida.

“I believe that they’ll make a decision at that time that I hope will celebrate life,” said Hill.

Despite the new conservative leaning on the court, pro choice activists say that the legislation being proposed is unconstitutional, and they think the court will agree.

“Absolutely there is concern, but at the end of the day Florida’s state constitution continues to have a strong right to privacy that I know Floridians across this state support,” said Eskamani.

So far the fetal heartbeat has not received a hearing, but contentious legislation is often saved for late in the session, which ends in May.

A second bill raising concerns for pro choice activists would require parents to be provide consent for a minors abortion.

Current law only requires parents be notified.

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Felony Theft Threshold Legislation Watered Down By Senate

March 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A comprehensive criminal justice reform bill got unanimous approval from a Senate committee this morning, but was slightly watered down.

A provision in the bill would have raised Florida’s felony theft threshold from $300 to $1500. It was reduced to $750.

Senator Jeff Brandes who has been the driving force behind the proposal says it was a compromise that had to be made.

“So my goal is that we will move beyond this issue and take on some of the really hard issues of the legislative process,” said Brandes. “How do we move a prison population from 96,000 to something more manageable? How do I adequately fund prison systems? How do I put more educators in the prison systems?”

Florida currently has the second lowest felony theft threshold in the country. Raising it to $750 would bring the state closer inline with the rest of the nation.

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New Report Highlights Benefits of Investing in State Colleges

March 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

For every dollar spent on state colleges, Florida increases it’s gross domestic product by between 10 and $15.

That’s according to a new report, highlighting the importance of investing in the state college system conducted by Florida TaxWatch.

The report also says the state’s current investment in the state college system produces 10,000 jobs annually.

“It’s a continued opportunity to have the Florida college system really show how well they’ve been training our residents in the State of Florida. And really what a fantastic bang for the buck if you will, that our employers, that the State of Florida, that our emergency personnel are receiving as a result of the training within our Florida college system,” said Rep. Tobin Overdorf.

Governor Ron DeSantis has set a goal of making Florida number one in the nation for an educated work force holding an associates degree or higher. Currently Florida ranks 24th.

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