CLEARWATER — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson on Monday criticized the state for months of delays in fixing its state unemployment claims website and noted that one day after he got federal officials involved, money started flowing again to the unemployed.
Asked whether the governor and state administration bear most of the blame for not getting a fix in place sooner, Nelson responded: "I think you need to go and ask the executive."
Since the mid-October launch of the $63 million CONNECT website, which processes unemployment claims, thousands of payments have been held up by technical malfunctions, leaving claimants increasingly desperate.
At Nelson's behest, federal officials, including Gay Gilbert, administrator for the federal unemployment insurance program, arrived in Tallahassee on Friday to investigate Florida's oversight of the website, which serves about 235,000 claimants. A day later, the state Department of Economic Opportunity announced that U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez had given it authority to pay claims that have been delayed longer than a week.
Nelson said all it took was "a little bit of communication" and "putting the people's interests first," along with finding a vendor that could make the system function.
Perez "very easily fixed that by saying, 'You go on and make the payments. We will settle up later.' That's the right thing to do because there are people's lives at stake," Nelson said.
He added that he hopes there will be restitution for claimants who have suffered hardships while they were unable to collect unemployment benefits.
Nelson also called on the state to help those in danger of losing their homes because they couldn't get their checks.
"I think the state of Florida has a responsibility to get in there, make the compensation (claimants) didn't get in the past and then try to step in and work with the banks where mortgages hadn't been able to be paid," he said.
Nelson took questions from reporters while in Clearwater to speak at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally. During the 20-minute conversation, Nelson also answered questions about similar problems with the federal government's Affordable Care Act website, calling the glitches "inexcusable" and saying that "somebody ought to get fired."
While the congressman said he successfully used the website to sign up for insurance himself, he's heard reports about people who are still having trouble navigating the site or receiving identification cards and insurance reimbursements.
"That's just an administrative malfunction that's got to be straightened out," Nelson said.
Most Americans are already insured through their employer, Medicare or Medicaid, Nelson said, so the glitches affected only about 20 percent of the population. However, he said he faults the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott for failing to expand Medicaid, which would have given another 1 million Floridians access to health care.
During the session with reporters, Nelson also talked about the move to legalize marijuana in Florida. He said he opposes across the board legalization of the drug because he believes it is harmful.
But "marijuana used as a medical relief for people that are desperate, I agree that ought to be legal," he said.
Marijuana legislation, he said, is "best left to the states" rather than the federal government.
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This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: Gay Gilbert, administrator for the federal unemployment insurance program, visited Tallahassee last week to work with officials on a fix to the CONNECT unemployment website. The visitor was incorrectly identified in an article Tuesday.