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Crist signs Fla. health insurance bill

Associated Press Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Legislation changing a health insurance billing procedure, which drew support from doctors and opposition from consumer advocates and others, became law on Wednesday with Gov. Charlie Crist’s signature. 

Crist also signed new laws prohibiting local governments from spending public dollars to sway voters on ballot issues and closing a loophole that has let some corporations avoid taxes on real estate transactions. Another measure may make it more difficult for museums to display preserved human bodies.

The health insurance law (SB 1122) will require insurers to send payments directly to out-of-network doctors instead of to patients.

Crist, the son of a doctor, wrote in a signing statement that some patients get insurance checks and then fail to pay their medical bills.

"For this reason, many providers are reluctant to care for out-of-network individuals, thus reducing access to health care," Crist wrote. "As a result, individuals may not get the opportunity to see the provider of their choice."

He added that the new law also would reduce fraud.

A coalition including the Consumer Federation of the Southeast, Associated Industries of Florida and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, had urged Crist to veto the bill.

They argued it could increase out-of-pocket costs for patients and would remove a key incentive for doctors to offer discounts for in-network services, leading to higher premiums for everyone.

"If you have health insurance, this bill will cost you money," said Walter Dartland, executive director of the Consumer Federation of the Southeast.

The Florida Medical Association, though, praised the measure.

"While routing the payment through the patient may seem like a minor inconvenience, unfortunately, this practice is driving up the cost of health care, imposing hidden fees and limiting access," said Timothy J. Stapleton, the association’s executive vice president.

The new law banning local governments from spending taxpayer dollars on political advertising (SB 216) was sponsored by Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg.

"Today marks a new era of government accountability, as this will ensure that government will not be telling taxpayers how to vote," Justice said.

The Florida League of Cities had asked Crist to veto the bill, arguing local officials may unwittingly violate the ban by expressing an opinion on government time.

John Hedrick, a spokesman for Florida Hometown Democracy, said the law should help his group pass a ballot initiative next year that would give voters a say in how their communities are developed. Many local governments have opposed the proposal, which would require voter approval of changes to local comprehensive plans.

The law (SB 2430) closing a documentary stamp tax loophole is expected to bring in about $46 million during the budget year starting July 1. It reverses a 2005 Florida Supreme Court ruling that said the tax need not be paid if if a corporation is created to take title of a piece of real estate and then the corporation is sold.

The preserved bodies law (SB 414) would require a museum to show the bodies came from willing donors or else get approval from the state’s anatomical board. Museums currently have been ignoring the board, which says they need to get its approval.

Crist also vetoed two bills.

One (SB 718) would have allowed Duval County to impose a local option sales tax, with the proceeds going to indigent care and trauma centers, without voter approval. Crist wrote he believes voters should decide such matters.

The other (HB 739) would let community colleges charge transportation access fees that could be used to provide students with free or discounted bus service. Crist wrote that he couldn’t support charging students up to $200 per year for a service they may not use.