May 09, 2013

Feds sue Gaetz's former company for Medicare fraud, including period he was vice-chairman

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed suit against the hospice company founded by Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, accusing the company of engaging in Medicare fraud for more than 11 years, including during the time Gaetz was vice chairman of the company.

The lawsuit, filed May 2 in the District Court for the western district of Missouri, alleges that since at least 2002 Vitas Hospice Services and Vitas Healthcare Corp., the largest provider of for-profit hospice services in the country, “misspent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars from the Medicare program.”

Gaetz sold the company in 2004 to its current owner, Cincinnati-based Chemed, and reportedly no longer owns any shares or has any affiliation with the company. Chemed operates hospice services in 18 states including Florida.

The suit, filed on the eve of the final day of the legislative session, alleges that the Chemed and its hospice subsidiaries defrauded Medicare by billing Medicare for patients who were not eligible for hospice care, and for charging Medicare for crisis care given to patients who either didn’t need it or never received it.

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April 30, 2013

Senate kills Weatherford top priority of pension overhaul

After months of calling pension reform a top priority in his inaugural year as Florida House speaker, Will Weatherford could do nothing Tuesday as his plan went down to defeat in the Senate.
A third of Senate Republicans joined Democrats in voting 22-18 against an amendment that would have banned new state workers, teachers and county workers from joining the state’s $132 billion pension system, and steer them instead toward private, 401(k)-style investment plans, shifting the risk from taxpayers to workers.
“One of the reasons they work for government is not for the salary,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. “They haven’t had raises in six or seven years. It’s for the pension and if we want to continue to have the quality of employees that we have, we need to continue to offer that pension.”
The setback came at the exact moment Weatherford, 33, faced a filibuster on the House floor among Democrats who wanted to draw attention to the House’s refusal to tap federal dollars to give health care coverage to 1 million uninsured Floridians.
“You always know you’re never going to get everything you asked for,” Weatherford said late Tuesday. “It came up a little bit short, but it was a great debate and I’m grateful to the Senate for giving it an opportunity to be heard.”
Weatherford has made much of his concern that the Florida pension system, which is about 86.9 percent funded, poses a dangerous risk to state finances. It’s a concern he shares with the Florida Chamber of Commerce the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee libertarian think tank. Weatherford’s father-in-law, former House Speaker Allan Bense, sits on the boards for both.
But Weatherford couldn’t convince members of his own party in the Senate that the pension system should be closed down to new employees. Instead, he got a forceful and emotional pushback from Latvala, a frequent sparring partner, who argued the pension serves as a reliable pillar for lowly paid workers.
During a memorable floor debate, Latvala welled up as he told the story of two firefighters near Lake City, Brett Felton and Josh Burch, who perished in 2011 fighting a blaze. They made about $26,000, he said.
“That’s barely the federal poverty level,” Latvala said. “They worked for their pension. One firefighter’s family was able to collect the survivor’s benefit, and he was in his 20s, and his family collects $1,200 a month. That’s what’s left of their dad. That’s what’s left of their husband.
“I do not understand why we want to experiment around and why we want to take these people who are protecting us every single day and put them in a system just because it works in private business,” Latvala said, pointing out that those in the private sector aren’t risking their lives for the public good.
Republicans joining Latvala’s insurrection were Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, a former sheriff; Nancy Detert, R-Venice; Miguel Diaz de La Portilla, R-Miami; Greg Evers, R-Baker; Anitere Flores, R-Miami; Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring; and John Legg, R-Trinity.
Latvala openly acknowledged what other Republican leaders in the Senate would not: Weatherford had demanded the vote.
“We all know this is the speaker’s priority for the year,” Latvala said during debate, addressing his comments to Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “We all know the speaker asked for an up-and-down vote on this, and that’s what we’re doing. I appreciate very much your commitment, Mr. President, that once we do this up-and-down vote, once it’s down, it goes away and we get on with other business that we have.”
Minutes after the vote, Latvala explained that Gaetz promised him that once Weatherford got a Senate vote, the issue wouldn’t come up again this year.
“Sometimes you’re the dog, sometimes you’re the hydrant,” he said. “I’ve been telling Will for two or three months that he didn’t have the votes over here, Now he sees it, black and white.”
Gaetz would not confirm that he had made such a promise.
“Well, I guess if Sen. Latvala said it, it must be true,” Gaetz told reporters.
After the failed amendment vote, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, decided the overall bill, SB 1392. Unlike Weatherford’s preference to require new employees to enroll in private investment plans, Simpson’s bill only encouraged them to do so while still allowing them to enroll in the pension system. But after the vote against Weatherford’s measure, Simpson gave up.
“There’s no support for it in the House,” Simpson said.
“It’s dead.”

April 28, 2013

Weatherford and Gaetz: the happy dance partners of the Florida session

Senate President Don Gaetz often introduces House Speaker Will Weatherford, as the “taller, smarter, better-looking version of the Weatherford-Gaetz” duo. Weatherford, who at 33 is young enough to be Gaetz’s son, calls the 65-year-old “a wonderful partner and, more important, a friend.”

The state’s two most powerful legislators are adversaries in theory, but they have acted more like partners in practice as they set a conciliatory tone for the legislative session that ends this week.

Their unusual camaraderie has led to early passage of three of their four priorities and the resolution of issues that for years had been mired in special interest turf battles.

“After Monday, we will have gone through most of the major pieces of legislation that members filed,’’ said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, Senate Rules Committee chairman, who, a decade ago, served as House speaker.

In the last three weeks, legislators agreed on allowing physicians to package drugs, optometrists to prescribe medications, high schools to offer varied graduation standards and the sugar industry to continue taxing itself for Everglades cleanup. Each had been bitterly fought for years and all but the education bill was fueled by campaign contributions from dueling sides. More here.

Read more here:

Weatherford and Gaetz school Legislature in member projects

The two most powerful men in the Florida Legislature are steering millions of dollars to community colleges in their districts.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, helped approve a list of allocations for state college projects that included $14 million for the advanced technology center at Panama City’s Gulf Coast State College. That amount grew from an original Senate offer of a mere $300,000, but bloomed in a last-minute addition to $17.5 millon on Saturday before shrinking to $14 million on Sunday night, all with little discussion.

Another $6.9 million was approved for a new Pasco-Hernando Community College campus in Wesley Chapel, the home of Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford.

“The speaker has been engaged in this process from the start,” said Steve Schroeder, general counsel and executive director of governmental relations for the Pasco-Hernando Community College, which now has five campuses. “He’s helped us much as he can. He’s the one who got it in there for us this year.”

Despite a promise by Gaetz and Weatherford that they would bring an unprecedented level of transparency to budget negotiations, lawmakers approved the expenditures with little discussion this weekend.

Both projects are tucked in a $74 billion budget draft that is due in final form on Tuesday. Lawmakers vote on it Friday.


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April 27, 2013

Lawmakers agree on pay hikes for state employees

TALLAHASSEE -- For the first time in seven years, state lawmakers have agreed to give Florida’s employees automatic salary increases, ending a bleak stretch for a 150,000-member workforce that’s weathered cutbacks, pay reductions and slashed benefits.

The House and Senate agreed Saturday to pay those making less than $40,000 an automatic $1,400 across-the-board increase. Those making more than $40,000 will receive a $1,000 raise. On top of that, merit raises of up to $600 could be available as well.

In all, for those 70 percent of employees who make less than $40,000, it could mean a bump between 5 and 10 percent.

“You can’t make up for all of the damage of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression in one year,” said Doug Martin, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 50,000 employees. “But this is very significant. This is very meaningful. This is a good day for state employees.”

The deal was struck between the House and Senate Republican leaders as they negotiate next year’s $74 billion budget, which goes into effect on July 1. The raises, however, don’t kick in until Oct. 1.

“Both (the House and Senate) wanted to recognize the fact that our co-workers in state government throughout Florida work hard every day and we appreciate their contribution to state government and their fellow citizens,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “Both (Senate President Don Gaetz) and House Speaker (Will Weatherford) wanted to, as our revenue picture has improved, wanted to show that in a tangible way through a salary increase.”

It’s similar to an automatic pay raise of $1,200 Gov. Rick Scott proposed for all state workers.

The proposed legislative increase will cost about $200 million, plus an additional $10.3 million for Florida Highway Patrol and Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers and staff. For the 4,000 employees in state law enforcement, they will get the same automatic pay raises that state workers do, but will receive an automatic 3 percent increase with a 2 percent raise for those with five years experience.

“We’ve had an issue with state law enforcement,” Negron said, explaining the difference in compensation for law enforcement. “Wwe spend a lot of money training the troopers, then they get hired away by local governments. They are in high demand.

“The current system if you have eight or 10 years experience, you’re making little more than someone who is just starting. That’s why we set it up that way,” Negron said.

Snag in budget talks involves not Medicaid, teacher pay or tax breaks, but license tags

TALLAHASSEE -- A behind-the-scenes effort by a Brandon company to maintain its monopoly on the manufacturing of state license tags has snagged the final hours of negotiations of the state’s $74 billion budget.

On Friday, the House and Senate closed out the transportation portion of the state budget, agreeing to throw out language that the House wanted that would have reserved the job of making state license tags to PRIDE, which oversees the current manufacturing of plates.

“The Senate respectfully believes that it’s better not to limit the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles when they look for cost saving alternatives for manufacturing license plates,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “And we prefer that that be a competitive process rather than limited to one particular vendor.”

House Appropriations Chair Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland agreed, and said the House was comfortable with dropping it.

So eyebrows were raised Saturday morning when Negron announced that he and McKeel were re-opening negotiations on transportation.

“I just wanted to let people know that we may have issues to discuss with proviso at a later meeting in case anyone was interested in that,” Negron said. “I just do that to make the process more transparent.”

What exactly is the issue?

Negron didn’t say at the 10 a.m. meeting, but the Times/Herald has learned it could be the license tags that appeared to have been settled just a day ago.

Although it sounds mundane, license tags are big business.


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April 24, 2013

Time running out for Weatherford's pension overhaul

Upon becoming Florida House Speaker last year, Will Weatherford said pension reform was going to be one of his top priorities.

But with a little more than a week left in session, Weatherford has for the first time acknowledged time is running out on passing his legislation.

“Nobody ever bats 1.000,,” Weatherford told reporters Tuesday. “No one ever expects to get everything single thing they asked for at the beginning of session.”


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April 21, 2013

Florida budget talks about as clear as gumbo

One of those watching state lawmakers discuss budget negotiations this weekend was Gov. Rick Scott’s spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers.

A newcomer to Florida, Sellers was the spokeswoman for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal before joining Scott’s office last year. With this being her first legislative session in Tallahassee, Sellers said Saturday she was impressed after watching the Conference Committee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations explain how they were divvying up $11.2 billion.

“In Louisiana, these meetings are held in smoky back rooms,” Sellers said. “The public never gets to see this.”

But for lobbyists, reporters, members of the general public, and even most lawmakers, there is more than just a hint of Cajun flavor in how lawmakers decide the budget.

Yes, the meetings are held in public. But the meetings are after the fact. The chairs merely announce the spending decisions that were made behind closed doors among the chamber leaders. If you weren’t in the room when that decision was made, good luck understanding the rationale for the spending, or, more importantly, what was swapped for it or who asked for it.

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April 18, 2013

As Weatherford's pension bill stalls, concerns of blowback grow

It’s the “other” pension bill this session.

Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, thought he was sponsoring one of the most important bills this session, one that would address what he called a crisis with municipal and county pensions. Of the nearly 500 pensions, more than half were troubled, he said.

For years, the Florida League of Cities has been pushing a fix that would allow cities more revenue from insurance premium taxes now being used for extra pension benefits for police and firefighters. Ring and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, sponsored SB 458 that they said would give cities more flexibility in how they use those revenues to help pay down pension debt.

Their bill passed the Senate last week with wide bipartisan support. It was sent over to the House on Tuesday, where it has sat ever since. Meanwhile, the companion bill, HB 1399, has been stranded at the House Appropriations Committee since April 5.

On Thursday, Ring said he was growing frustrated by the inaction.

“I thought the House would have taken our bill and moved it by now,” Ring said. “This bill addresses a crisis, and I just hope it doesn’t get tied to what’s happening on the FRS bill.”

Ring is referring to the clash between two other pension bills. Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford is championing HB 7011, which would require new state, teacher, county and university hires after Jan. 1, 2014 to enroll in investment plans rather than the state’s current pension. Meanwhile, SB 1392, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, would remove the requirement, but still encourage workers to enroll in investment plans.

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State budget talks begin with glad tidings, but will good mood hold?

The size of teacher and state worker raises, a possible 6 percent university tuition increase, and whether or not millions will be spent on affordable housing are just some of the issues to be determined as the House and Senate begin budget negotiations this week and next.

On Thursday, House and Senate leaders agreed on general revenue allocations of $26.99 billion in general revenue, which makes up about a third of the state’s $74 billion budget. (General revenue comes from the sales tax, the corporate income tax, documentary stamps and various other taxes and fees. The other two thirds are federal grants and state trust funds.)

The proposed spending is about what the House proposed in its initial proposed allocation in March. The Senate initially proposed $26.8 billion.

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz say there are few major differences this year than in years past. Thank an overall surplus of more than $3 billion for that.

The mood was upbeat Thursday as lobbyists and agency officials packed the Capitol to watch Weatherford and Gaetz introduce the beginning of budget negotiations between the House and Senate.

“As I walked into the room and took a good look around, what’s abundantly clear is that there appears to be a budget surplus this year,” Weatherford said. “That’s a good thing. We haven’t seen that in a long time.”


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