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In CONNECT debacle, Scott's staff says it's entirely the vendor's fault

Three months after its launch, Florida’s new $63 million website is showing signs of improvement but still falls far short of adequately serving claimants who depend on it for benefits, according to testimony by state officials Wednesday.

“The roll out of the new computer system has not gone as hoped or as promised by the vendor,” said Jesse Panuccio, the executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity told a senate appropriations committee. “And no one is more frustrated about that than the DEO.”

It’s not clear how quickly the CONNECT website will be fixed or who will resolve the problems that have delayed weekly payments, which are at most $275, for thousands of claimants since mid October. On Tuesday night, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson announced that officials with the U.S. Department of Labor were arriving later this week to “help fix” the website and wouldn’t leave until the problems are resolved.

The initial vendor, Deloitte Consulting, has hired 10 additional programmers to work on the project, but Panuccio announced Wednesday that he signed a $365,000 contract with a second vendor, Capgemini, to consult on Tuesday night.

In a more guarded presentation than the upbeat one he gave senators in November, Panuccio on Wednesday directed all blame at the vendor, Deloitte Consulting. Unlike his presentation two months ago, no Deloitte officials joined him at the podium, a further indication of how fractured, and potentially litigious, their relationship has become.

For now, more pressing for Panuccio are the numbers he disclosed to senators showing dubious progress.

Unlike regular claims that don’t require review, those that have questions have increased considerably. Because of complications caused by the technical glitches with the new CONNECT website, Panuccio said the number of these cases has climbed to about 60,000 -- an increase of between 17 percent to 25 percent.

In addition, calls to DEO have remained persistently high. After a dramatic drop from the first week high of 1.3 million total calls, the volume of calls flatlined to about 300,000. They have dipped in recent weeks, but the length of time on each call is longer than ever.

“So we’re able to answer fewer unique calls,” Panuccio said.

The numbers confirm what many suspect: widespread problems remain.

U.S. Department of Labor stats showed that claims dropped by nearly 20 percent since the launch of CONNECT. The non-profit National Employment Law Project estimated unemployed Floridians may have been denied more than $22 million in benefits in October and November after CONNECT launched.

Lawmakers are getting flooded with complaints and have, of late, shown an interest in CONNECT.

“Obviously, we’ve been getting questions on this,” said Sen. Andy Gardiner, the chair of the Senate’s transportation, tourism and economic development committee before Wednesday’s hearing, which was attended by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Yet as with November, senators avoided asking Panuccio critical questions and seemed willing to accept his version that it was Deloitte’s fault.

“They appear to be very much in default, and yet there is no way to restore the reputational damage that’s done to your department, to the state, to this Legislature because of their failure,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

Panuccio said the state may try to “recoup costs” from Deloitte, which has been fined $15,000 a day since Dec. 20 when the DEO concluded it hadn’t fixed 53 technical issues.

Deloitte has pushed back, blaming problems on system errors that weren’t related to the website. In a letter posted on the DEO website, Panuccio firmly disagreed and a few days later announced he was negotiating with Capgemini.

Perhaps chastened by difficulties with the federal Healthcare.Gov website overseen by President Barack Obama’s administration, state Democratic lawmakers have been mostly subdued in their criticism, only recently saying they wouldn’t trust DEO’s assurances again.

Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, called the website a “dismal failure” before the hearing during a news conference, but raised no such objections or asked critical questions during the hearing.