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Is CONNECT Rick Scott's Obamacare?

During a second day of legislative hearings into the technical problems plaguing the launch of the state’s new $63 million CONNECT unemployment website, the chorus of Democratic lawmakers seeking answers grew louder.

“I can’t think of a more critical issue for us to demand action on,” said Sen. Darren Soto of Orlando during a Tuesday Senate Democratic caucus meeting. “When you think of a single mom who is waiting for that check and who can’t buy groceries, you think of an elderly person who is too old to be in the workforce, they may fall through the cracks and god knows what will happen to them.”

Since the Oct. 15 launch of CONNECT, which processes unemployment claims for 230,000 recipients, the offices of Gov. Rick Scott, state lawmakers and DEO officials have been besieged with thousands of emails and phone calls complaining about crashes, delays and glitches that are making it difficult for many to collect the money they need to pay rent, bills and groceries.

Because of a requirement passed during the 2011 legislative session, those receiving unemployment benefits must register online to get them. Earlier this year, federal officials found that Florida violated the civil rights of unemployed individuals by requiring them to apply online and take an “assessment” before they receive any unemployment check.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale said he will write a letter outlining his concerns as well as request a meeting with DEO staff to discuss CONNECT next week. He joins two other Democratic lawmakers, state Rep. Irv Slosberg, of Boca Raton, and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, who have both asked for investigations into the system.

Meanwhile, the director of the agency that oversees the system said it is working close to normal and was already processing and paying about as many claims as the system it replaced.

Still, he had to deliver some bad news to lawmakers that further undermined his message that CONNECT is working properly.

“We had a server go down for about a half hour that caused some technical issues,” Jesse Panuccio, the executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, told the House Appropriations committee on transportation and economic development Tuesday morning. “It is now back up, but those are the type of issues that can cause problems.”

Later Tuesday, Panuccio said he didn’t know how long it was down, but added the server crashed again at noon.

Internal DEO emails suggest that the situation was worse than what Panuccio initially reported to lawmakers.

According to a 7:59 a.m. email from Chris Sharples, a DEO benefits services specialist, associates were unable to log into CONNECT to process claims. An email sent at 9:03 a.m., this time from Shawn Brown, a DEO internal security administrator, told employees the CONNECT system is “currently down.”

It’s not until an email sent at 9:13 a.m. that CONNECT is reported to be up and running. So how exactly did Panuccio, who was already into his presentation before the House TED committee, know that CONNECT was back up? And why did he say it was down for “about a half hour” when e-mails show it was down for at least twice that?

Asked about these inconsistencies, DEO spokeswoman Monica Russell responded in an email that during Tuesday morning’s committee presentation, Panuccio was providing the information he had at the time.

“We have since been updated that the issue had to do with web servers, two of which (there are five) had overloaded capacity and those two servers were intermittently down from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and then for a few minutes around noon.”

Those users and staffers on either of those servers would have seen an error message when attempting to log on, but those on the other three servers would have been able to process claims, she said. The entire system was down for about 10 minutes while the project team restarted the servers, but she didn’t say when that shutdown took place.

Since Oct. 15, the DEO hasn’t been completely forthcoming about the problems with CONNECT. On Oct. 16, the Times/Herald asked DEO if it had warned the vendor, Deloitte Consulting, of performance issues. It was told by a spokeswoman that the project was within its anticipated time frame. Only later did the Times/Herald discover that DEO didn’t disclose a 2012 letter from the agency to Deloitte stating its intent to terminate the contract.  

Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said the DEO made no mention of its concerns with Deloitte or CONNECT during a committee hearing days before the launch.

“They knew then they were having problems with it and not one word was mentioned during the committee meeting,” Gibson said. “They knew it was an issue and it needed to delay the switch over. We’re getting into Thanksgiving and people are still having problems.”

But because of the problems with the Obama administration’s roll out of the federal government’s health care website, the response from Democrats to CONNECT’s difficulties has been, until now, mostly subdued.

After all, how do Democrats harp on the technical shortcomings of the debut of a complicated website that must handle millions of transactions when they’re begging for patience with the federal website and its glitches?

That conundrum was noted during Tuesday’s Senate Democratic caucus meeting.

“Sen. (Gwen) Margolis and I said (CONNECT) sounded like the roll out of the Obamacare Act, but nobody wanted to say that,” joked Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.

“No, we don’t,” said Margolis, D-Coconut Grove.

But for many Democrats, the CONNECT site is different. People depend on unemployment benefits to survive.

“It’s fine to compare this to the whole marketplace thing,” Gibson said. “But the (CONNECT) money is critical for groceries and things like that.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, worried Republicans were taking advantage.

“It’s kind of hypocritical that they’re slamming Obamacare when we have problems with our own website,” he said Tuesday.

But because of CONNECT, Republicans have been put in the position of telling the public to give a government website more time to work out its problems before rejecting it.

“We’re going to see the efficiencies from the new system,” said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples during a Monday Senate hearing into CONNECT. “But there is a learning curve that you have to get through before you get the efficiencies.”

It’s hard to imagine Republican lawmakers asking for similar patience with the Obamacare website or the lack of zeal in figuring out if there are any issues as they are with CONNECT.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, told Deloitte during Monday’s hearing that her committee wouldn’t ask probing questions about its $63 million contract with Florida.

“We’re not here to rake people over the amount of the money,” Detert said. Later, after a series of softball questions, she lauded the project team for their honesty.

During Tuesday’s second hearing into CONNECT, when Slosberg sought to ask Panuccio how many eligible recipients have failed to get paid since CONNECT launched, he was cut off by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, the chair of the economic development and tourism committee.

“If this is a cross examination, if these are open-ended questions that you know the answer to I’d be happy to entertain them, but, ‘Is it true? Is it not true?’ I will not entertain those questions, ” Trujillo said.

After the hearing, Slosberg said he would continue to push for answers.

“He didn’t want me to ask questions I knew the answers to,” Slosberg said. “But I do know the answers to the questions. If something’s wrong, something’s wrong. The state of Florida has to get this under control.”