Florida's PIP reform bill would reduce treatment options for accident victims; no more acupuncture or massage therapy
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04/02/12 Janelle Irwin
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A bill waiting for the Governor’s signature could reduce personal injury protection fraud and eventually reduce auto insurance premiums in Florida. But another consequence would be that accident victims would no longer be able to use PIP to cover massage therapy or acupuncture because those services are not considered emergency medical treatments. Diane Handley is president of the Tampa chapter of the Florida State Massage Therapy Association. She was in a car accident two years ago that left her with chronic pain. She said all doctors could offer were strong pain medications and that was not an option for her.

“I was a primary caregiver for my mother who was a quad in a wheelchair. So, she needed assistance with being able to be transported back and forth from her bed to her chair, to the different seating positions she needed like to the shower or the bathroom. So, I still needed to be able to function even though I was in pain so I couldn’t really take a lot of pain medication because it would just put me to sleep and I couldn’t be asleep and still take good care of her. So, instead I sought out massage therapy and chiropractic care and through the two of those was able to maintain my pain level at such that I could continue taking care of my mother.”

And professionals affected by the proposed changes to PIP laws are worried that eliminating coverage for holistic treatments will add to the already high number of Floridians who are addicted to prescription pain medications. Michael Schwartz is an acupuncturist from Lake City. He traveled to Tallahassee in February with a patient to show lawmakers that traditional medicine isn’t the only way to manage pain.

“Another great benefit of the acupuncture is that it does away with the need to take pain medication. Legislation was trying to get people off of pain medication that is addictive and in the long run they are taking out the type of medicine that can help people get rid of the pain pills.”

In cases like Diane Handley’s where doctors have no other remedy besides prescription medications, massage therapists offer treatments that are unavailable through a physician.

“He sent me for x-rays and he said that I was fine other than the fact that I had the muscle tears and the muscle pain and so with that I went to see a muscle specialist, which is what a massage therapist is. I went to see a massage person in order to have him help me with my pain.”

The legislation was drafted to reduce auto insurance premiums. According to the bill’s sponsor, Representative Jim Boyd, a Republican from Bradenton, residents in Tampa would see some of the most drastic cuts.

“It has to go down 10% when they re-file rates this fall which is October – excuse me, I think December. So, that has to be the case or they have to justify why they aren’t lowering rates. We would expect at least a 10% - I think it’s reasonable to expect a 10% decrease this year. Then in 2014, a total of 25% the rates should go down.”

But opponents say the savings might not be quite so black and white. Debbie Ray is the legislative committee chair for the Tampa chapter of the Florida State Massage Therapy Association. She said if signed into law, savings on car insurance isn’t much consolation to many massage therapists who will likely find themselves in the unemployment line.

“It’s not just about us losing our right to work, but the general public is losing the right to chose their healthcare because they’re choosing massage. And that’s one reason that they stated that there’s so many claims for massage therapy – that the dollar amount has gone up or the accidents have gone down – and I think it’s because people are finding that massage works.”

Another goal of passing PIP reform was to cut down on fraud. But according to State Representative Jim Boyd, it would also cut costs by slashing what he claims are some of the most expensive components of PIP coverage, massage therapy and acupuncture.

“Those were some of the significant cost drivers. I’m not saying that in some cases those aren’t good things to have, but we tried to look at what emergency medical treatments you might need in the event of an accident that can get you back on your feet and get you back to work or get you back to school or whatever the circumstance might be. Some of those other overages might be more appropriate for medical insurance or, if you feel strongly about it, even your own doing as far as taking care of those charges.”

But Florida State Massage Therapy Association’s Ray said the alternative therapies like acupuncture and massage are less costly than seeing a physician who could rack up thousands of dollars in fees for medical tests.

“The annual cost of an emergency room visit – I think they quoted – was $2700. To be cost effective, that $2700 just for going to the emergency room could get a person a lot of chiropractic and massage. Plus, once they go to the ER they have to through all the tests and, are they treated there for their problem or are they diagnosed and just sent on?”

The bill would also restrict the amount of time victims have to file a claim to 14 days. Under the current law there is no limit. But Ray said many people don’t realize they have been injured right away.

“I’ve had people a month later, they think they slept wrong and they twisted their neck or they lifted something and hurt their back, but when it doesn’t go away, that’s when they start questioning, what have I done?”

If signed, the new law would also make it harder for victims to receive the full $10,000 personal injury protection compensation. Only victims determined to have a so-called “emergency medical condition” would receive that benefit while those with less severe injuries could only receive up to $2500 worth of care. Opponents like Debbie Ray are worried the legislation will benefit insurance companies on the backs of patients and therapists. She expects Governor Rick Scott to sign the bill without hesitation and said her association is considering ways to fight the law once that happens. Though Ray acknowledges that fight won’t be an easy one.

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