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Why reward the firm that built Florida’s terrible unemployment system? | Editorial
A $135 million contract is at stake.
A small group of demonstrators gathers at Lake Eola Park to protest the Florida unemployment benefits system in June.
A small group of demonstrators gathers at Lake Eola Park to protest the Florida unemployment benefits system in June. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Aug. 27, 2020

Let’s say you paid a contractor to build a home but the roof leaked, the siding fell off and the pipes burst — right after you moved in. The contractor then cheered about the quality of the project and how much you were benefiting from such a sturdy, well-built structure. Eventually, you ended up spending more to fix the home than it originally cost. Would you hire that contractor again? Officials with the state Agency for Health Care Administration want to do just that — to the tune of about $135 million.

The decision-making surrounding the contract to handle the state’s Medicaid data raises so many questions it’s hard to know where to start. It’s like Michael Scott from The Office got together with Colonel Klink of Hogan’s Heroes fame to create this slapstick. Except it isn’t funny, and it’s all too real.

The state needs a contractor to centralize and manage the data from its $23 billion Medicaid program. After a recent vetting process, Deloitte Consulting came out on top, the same firm that created the state’s notorious unemployment benefits system. The $77 million CONNECT system failed soon after launching in 2013, leaving many out-of-work Floridians with no way to collect weekly benefits. Deloitte and the state never got CONNECT working well, so when the pandemic sidelined hundreds of thousands of workers earlier this year, the system melted down. The state was forced to spend up to another $110 million to shore it up. So many people complained that Gov. Ron DeSantis called for an investigation into what went wrong.

The committee assessing potential contractors for the Medicaid job glossed over Deloitte’s role in that highly publicized fiasco. Officials with the Department of Economic Opportunity — the agency that oversees the unemployment website — wrote that they would not work with Deloitte again. The state even penalized the firm $8 million for its handling of the unemployment system. But the committee members dismissed the dispute as “sour grapes” and a “renew of a messy breakup,” according to transcripts of a July meeting reported on by Tampa Bay Times staff writer Lawrence Mower.

Deloitte’s selection looks even more curious given that runner-up Accenture received positive recommendations from two other state agencies, and IBM claims that at least one evaluator didn’t receive all of the documents in its bid, which led to widely varying scores among the evaluators.

It gets worse. The Agency for Health Care Administration also hired Tom McCullion as a $155-an-hour private contractor to manage the Medicaid project. He was involved in the recent bidding process that led to Deloitte’s selection. Guess who oversaw the installation of the state’s unemployment system so many years ago, including choosing Deloitte? That would be the same Tom McCullion. Talk about doubling down on a bad decision.

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The gut punch: The state refuses to say how much Deloitte or its four competitors bid on the potential $135 million contract. They say that the companies believe the bids are “trade secrets,” an insulting notion that defies the spirit of Florida’s public records laws and stretches the bounds of common sense, particularly when it’s tax dollars — that is, your money — that is being spent.

To his credit, DeSantis has said the whole thing doesn’t look right. He would prefer that Deloitte not get the contract, but he doesn’t feel like he can legally interfere in the bidding process.

The state certainly bears some responsibility for the faulty unemployment website. Many users complain that it seems set up to make it as hard as possible to receive benefits. But that doesn’t absolve Deloitte. The firm knew the system would be a disaster and didn’t prevent it, or didn’t have the acumen to realize it would fail nearly from the start. Either explanation should be the brightest of red flags when it comes to Deloitte’s ability to deliver on a nine-figure government contract.

The state must restore confidence in the vetting process. That starts with a thorough and public examination of how Deloitte got the Medicaid contract and why McCullion was hired. The unemployment system failed spectacularly. It’s not worth risking a repeat performance.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news