Opioids, timber, cancer on Florida Cabinet priority lists
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Attorney General Ashley Moody wants a task force on opioid addiction, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried wants to help the timber industry recover from Hurricane Michael and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis wants to help firefighters with cancer.
While Florida’s three Cabinet members can’t sponsor or vote on bills, they hold important leadership roles in state government and each is working with lawmakers to pass legislation and make budget recommendations.
The Associated Press interviewed each of the Cabinet members to discuss their 2019 legislative priorities:
ATTORNEY GENERAL ASHLEY MOODY
Moody’s top priority is legislation to create a statewide task force to combat the opioid epidemic. She said while campaigning last year that Florida was averaging 14 opioid deaths a day.
“We now lose 17 people a day, so we’re not heading in a direction we as Floridians would like to see,” she said.
The task force would examine what programs have been effective in reducing opioid addiction and make recommendations on how to best address the problem.
“You have people trying different things all over the state, all over the nation. Some are working, some are not,” she said. “You want to make sure that once we can pinpoint something that’s having a dramatic effect on the death toll, that we can use economy of scale and the structures we have set up throughout Florida to push that out in an efficient way.”
Moody also wants lawmakers to increase the amount of money authorized to pay for forensic examinations after sexual assaults. The state now allows up to $500 payment for the exams.
“It actually costs over twice that, so we’re asking for permission to be able to use our funds that we already have ... to pay for those,” she said.
She also wants a bill allowing state-paid mental health counselling for 15- through 17-year-old victims of lewd acts.
“We have the authority to do so for younger children and we just want to expand that definition,” Moody said.
AGRICULTURE COMMISSIONER NIKKI FRIED
Fried’s top priority is helping the timber industry recover from Hurricane Michael. The industry took a $1.3 billion hit from the October storm and many of the millions of downed trees still need to be removed.
“The timber industry has been decimated. To see a farmer have his entire life savings on the ground and no opportunity to make it better is heartbreaking,” Fried said.
She’s asking for $39 million to help clear fallen trees, replant new ones and for helicopters to prepare for what’s expected to be an active wildfire season because of the downed trees and debris.
“We’re going to get to the dry season and fires are going to start,” she said. “Our helicopters right now are older than the ones that are in the Vietnam (War) museum and are no longer really safe for our guys to be up there monitoring.”
Fried said her second priority is strengthening the department’s consumer services operations.
“We hear reports all the time of different fraud that’s happening, whether it’s travel agents, whether it’s non-profit organizations, the skimmers in the gas station pumps to car wash places, payday loan lenders,” she said. “One of our agency bills will talk about different types of consumer services and beefing up the penalties.”
She also is making a budget request to add 77 new employees to the division that issues concealed weapons permits and licenses for armed private investigators and security guards. Her predecessor was criticized for problems with improperly issued licenses. She said one reason is because the department lacks enough full-time staff to process them.
CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER JIMMY PATRONIS
Patronis’ top priority is providing firefighters with cancer benefits, including full cost of treatment, a $25,000 payout, disability pay and death benefits for beneficiaries.
“Seventy percent of our firefighters’ in line of duty deaths are cancer related. It’s just a huge, obscene number,” Patronis said. “We’ve got to create a solution ... to help offset their expenses, their deductibles and their lost wages while they get treatment.”
Patronis also is seeking a way to cut down on the number of insurance-related lawsuits following hurricanes. He says the problem occurs when homeowners sign over insurance benefits to contractors before getting in touch with their insurance companies and then the contractors sue to collect payment. He said thousands of lawsuits were filed in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
Patronis said contractors immediately swooped into the Panama City area after Michael while internet and cellphone services were down and had homeowners sign assignment of benefits agreements before they were able to contact their insurance companies.
“They were staged prior to the storm better than Verizon Wireless. These guys were everywhere prepared to hit the ground running to sign people up,” Patronis said. “The assignment of benefits process has a purpose, but it’s being exploited and perverted for a use that it was never, ever intended.”
One bill he’s seeking would only allow reimbursement of attorney fees for people named on insurance policies, which would make assignment of benefits agreements less attractive for contractors.
Patronis also wants to crack down on scams to replace windshields. He’s working with lawmakers to pass a bill that would prohibit auto repair shops or their employees from offering anything of value to entice people to make an insurance claim for windshield replacements.
He said car owners are often offered gift cards to agree to a windshield inspection, the windshield is replaced and insurance companies are billed, often leading to lawsuits.
“The insurance carry will say, ‘Where’s the broken windshield?’ ‘It’s in the dumpster.’ There’s no evidence to draw from,” Patronis said. “Ultimately it will drive rates up. It’s unethical.”