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Unisys' missing millions

In private business, a contractor would be fired if it failed miserably to do its job or if one of its employees faced charges of stealing millions from the business. The business executive responsible for hiring and overseeing the contractor also would be dismissed. In Gov. Lawton Chiles' administration, the priorities are different. Being loyal to the Old He-Coon is more important than being competent, and state workers and taxpayers are paying for it.

An employee for Unisys, the contractor that writes Medicaid checks for Florida, has been accused of stealing an astounding $20-million in public money. The criminal investigation is continuing and is expected to produce more arrests. This is the same Unisys that has proved to be incapable of processing health care claims for state employees, leaving thousands of workers with unpaid medical bills.

Doug Cook, the director of the Agency for Health Care Administration, is responsible for the Medicaid program and for the health care plan for state workers. He has worked for Chiles for years in Washington and Tallahassee, and he is one of the governor's closest friends. But no friendship should excuse Cook's abysmal failure to do his job.

As a statewide grand jury pointed out last fall, Cook's agency has not adequately safeguarded the state's $6.7-billion Medicaid program from fraud, despite his claims of millions in savings. The arrest of the low-level Unisys employee appears to represent only the tip of the iceberg. The fact that Cook's agency finally stumbled across the sophisticated scam after more than $20-million apparently was stolen is hardly reassuring. Losing that much money to fraud would force many large companies

into bankruptcy. Government should not treat such an enormous loss as the cost of doing business. There has to be accountability, and it begins with Cook.

Cook also is responsible for the skewed bidding process that resulted in Unisys winning the contract to process health care claims for state workers. Unisys had no experience handling such a large job, but its bid was lower than one from Blue Cross Blue Shield Inc., which had held the contract for 17 years. It requires a leap of faith to believe that Cook's eagerness to switch companies had nothing to do with his disappointment that Blue Cross did not support the governor's unsuccessful health care reform package several years ago.

Unisys has been a disaster. Instead of saving money, its failure to negotiate discounts from medical providers that Blue Cross received will cost the state millions. A consultant hired to sort out the mess concluded last month that Unisys is still failing to meet the performance standards required by its state contract and may never be able to do the job properly. Equally discouraging is the refusal of Unisys' project manager to appear before a statewide grand jury examining the way Unisys has processed claims.

When contractors and state administrators fail to perform their jobs, they must be held accountable. Chiles' own integrity will be at stake if he does not act soon. The governor should cancel Unisys' contracts for paying Medicaid claims and administering the state health plan. He should fire Cook for failing to supervise those contracts responsibly, and he should not worry about where his old friend will find work.

Unisys might be hiring.