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9 posts from October 23, 2013

October 23, 2013

Senate urged to retain existing gambling as it considers expansion

Coconut Creek hearingFlorida legislators came to the heart of the state’s gambling country in Coconut Creek on Wednesday and heard from a packed house of well-organized — and tame — speakers who urged lawmakers to protect the incumbent industries as they consider expanding gambling in Florida.

“I am not a fan of destination resorts,’’ said Joy Cooper, mayor of Hallandale Beach, one of about 600 people who attended the three-hour hearing on Wednesday. “Our pari-mutuels have already invested time, effort and supported local businesses and paid local taxes.’’

The Senate Gaming Committee heard public testimony at Broward College’s north campus as it prepares legislation to rewrite the state’s gambling laws and again consider whether to allow for the arrival of so-called destination resort casinos in Miami Dade and Broward.

“Any attempt to expand new casinos in our area should encourage and incentivize the participants who have a track record,’’ said Brian Johnson of Fort Lauderdale. “If that sounds like a shameless plug, well, it is.”

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In East Room event, Obama jumps into immigration reform Thursday. Does this mean it's dead or alive?


Earlier this year, immigration reform leaders in the U.S. House like Republican Mario Diaz-Balart wanted the president to keep quiet about the issue as they grappled with it.

But they grappled. And they grappled. And they grappled.

And still there is no bill (but there is no shortage of finger-pointing). But there is a lot of fear among Republicans.

Many watched what happened to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio when he helped craft and pass a bipartisan immigration-reform bill in the Senate, only to have the tea party and right-wing media elite tear him up.

Now the president is ready to put his weight behind the issue and plans to hold a 10:35 a.m. East Room address calling on Congress to pass immigration reform.

Two initial takeaways about the politics of it all:

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Consumers face dubious Obamacare enrollment pitches as official site continues to stall


A story in Thursday's paper describes the health care outreach of a group that appears to be affiliated with President Barack Obama and his signature law but is really a front for a Florida insurance agency. An excerpt:

"Obamacare Enrollment Center,'' announced the banner hanging from the pulpit. It even bore the "O" logo from President Obama's campaign.

But the self-proclaimed "Obamacare Enrollment Team'' that rolled into Florida's capital this week has no official connection with the president or his signature health law. It is a front for a Stuart-based insurance agency now accused of trying to dupe consumers into buying health insurance.

Affordable Care Act advocates long have worried about unofficial sales efforts, and with the law's continued technical problems, frustrated consumers may be increasingly vulnerable to promises of easier access to the system.

Dealing with an unofficial pitch carries at least two problems: First, you could be scammed entirely. Secondly, even if you buy a legitimate insurance policy, you might lose out on tax subsidies offered under the health care law.

The only way lower- and middle-income consumers can get a subsidy is through official channels.

"Obamacare Enrollment Team'' is the brand used by the Fiorella Insurance Agency to market policies during the health care rollout, especially to minorities in urban areas. The group solicits through a network of websites, none of which disclosed ties to the insurance agency until after reporters started poking around.

Attorney General Pam Bondi's office received a complaint from a woman who said she worked for Illinois' official health insurance marketplace and became concerned after watching the Obamacare Enrollment Team in action at a Chicago job fair earlier this month. It also has held events in Detroit.

Read more here.

Disgraced House speaker Sansom wants state to pay his $800K legal bill

From the Associated Press:

A former Florida lawmaker is trying to get the state to pay more than $800,000 in legal fees that he racked up while defending himself against corruption charges that were later dropped.

Attorneys for former House Speaker Ray Sansom told a judge Wednesday that the state should pay the tab because the charges against the Destin Republican were related to his official duties while he was in the Legislature.

The judge did not say when he would rule on the case.

Sansom, who had been the House budget chairman, was accused of scheming to get $6 million in state money to pay for a hangar at the Destin airport for Jay Odom, a local businessman and major Republican donor. Defense lawyers argued the money was for a much-needed and hurricane-proof emergency operations center.

Sansom's 2011 trial ended when State Attorney Willie Meggs dropped the charges after a judge refused to let a key witness testify.

At the time, Meggs said Sansom and Odom had agreed to reimburse Northwest Florida State College for money it spent on the hangar project.

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Florida's DEO admits ongoing issues with unemployment benefits website

An expensive government website that failed to launch properly, despite years of preparation. Frustrated users who will be penalized if they can't log on in time. Questions about how transparent those responsible for the website are.

No, this isn’t the troubled debut of the HealthCare.gov site that is dominating cable news these days.

It’s Gov. Rick Scott’s roll out of Florida’s new $63 million unemployment benefits website. Launched last week and initially called a success by a Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman, it’s becoming increasingly evident that it’s having Obamacare-esque problems of its own.

On Wednesday, the Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the state’s processing of claims for an average of 235,000 recipients, issued its most detailed acknowledgment yet that all is not well with the new website.

“Last week, the new system, CONNECT, was launched, and while tens of thousands of claims are being properly processed within the new system, the initial phase of the update has also caused delays for many users,” said an e-mail from the DEO late Wednesday. “DEO sincerely regrets any delays or frustration experienced by claimants and we are working around-the-clock with program experts from (project contractor) Deloitte to fix technical problems as they arise.”

No numbers are kept on just how many people have tried and failed to process their claims, so it’s not clear what to make of the 130,000 people who did submit claims in the past seven days, according to the DEO. Before the launch, the state didn’t process any claims between Oct. 9 and Oct. 14. Since claims are typically processed every two weeks, shouldn’t that number be higher? Officials aren’t providing much context these days, and have done much to confuse the media by not releasing all relevant information.

But on Wednesday, the DEO announced that it is expanding hours this week at the call centers, where they have 250 employees manning the phones for people unable to get through on the web. The DEO is adding 15 hours per week so it will now be operational from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. M-F, and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. The call center will also now be working on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The expansion is necessary considering the volume.

DEO Spokeswoman Jessica Sims said that between Tuesday and Saturday of last week, 1,124,350 calls were made to the state’s 1-800 help line. Of those calls, 47,619 were handled by an operator, a rate of about 4.2 percent.

True, some of those calling might have had their questions answered by automated messages in the menu. Or, as Sims pointed out, calls made include “repeat dialing by single caller.”

Lee Phelps of Tampa is one of those repeat dialers. Why does he keep calling back?

Because, he says in an email, he has yet to get his claim for benefits processed on the new website or talk to a human being.

“Today is the fifth day that I have been unable to talk to anyone or even get through the phone line,” Phelps said. “Though once I was put on automated hold for 30 minutes then dropped.”

Ana Alliegro, mystery woman in David Rivera probe, returns from Nicaragua exile, talks to feds


Ana Alliegro, a central player in a federal elections investigation of former Congressman David Rivera, returned from self-imposed exile in Nicaragua and is talking with authorities, the Miami Herald has learned.

Full story is here

Some Broward voters will get new precincts

Broward has finished it's reprecincting plan and all voters and now the Supervisor of Elections will spend the next several weeks updating its voter database. When that's finished, all Broward voters -- whether they end up in new precincts or not -- will get new voter cards. 

Under the new precincting plan, there is still a wide range in terms of precinct sizes: the largest will be 6,660 and the smallest is 217.Here's some background about the reprecincting that followed the long lines in the 2012 election that prompted Secretary of State Ken Detzner to bash Broward as one of the handful of counties that "underperformed."

Who's to blame for 300,000 policy purge? Florida Blue or Obamacare or both?


Florida Blue's decision to cancel about 300,000 individual-market policies has stirred up some customers and renewed criticism of President Obama's claim that those who like their insurance policies can keep them.

What Obama didn't say as much: The decision was largely up to the insurance companies.

Under Obamacare, companies were allowed to grandfather some existing health plans, even if they didn't comply with Affordable Care Act rules.

Insurance companies took advantage of the option by grandfathering plans that were profitable for the insurers and popular with the insured. Many plans, though, didn't fit this definition. In Florida Blue's case, about 80 percent of its individual plans were folded, and customers have been notified since August, angering some.

UPDATE: More than a day after being contacted, Florida Blue responded with a written statement (posted separately this morning) saying in many customers will be "migrating" to new plans:

"Florida Blue is proactively communicating to these members to help them understand how this transition affects them.  Prior to their 2014 renewal date, each member will receive a letter that instructs them to contact Florida Blue to review their migration options. These new plans will offer members access to more comprehensive benefits in 2014."

Some companies may be “doing this as an opportunity to push their populations into the exchange and purge their systems” of policyholders they no longer want, Jerry Flanagan, an attorney with the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog in California, told Kaiser Health News.

Chances are, conservatives will blame Obamacare for the cancellations. Liberals will blame the insurance companies and everyone else will likely make up their own minds based on their circumstances and the facts as they see them.

Still, with the Obamacare website fiasco occupying the Administration, news of the cancellation notices comes at the worst of times for the president's signature health program. It also underscores how much of Obamacare's fate is in the hands of insurance companies.


Little-known FL Dem announces CFO campaign in dark of night


It's 10:13 p.m., do you know who your Democratic CFO candidate is? Well, just wait 60 seconds, then.

At 10:14 p.m., the oddest of all times for a political announcement, businessman William Rankin announced he'd challenge state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

A retired vet, businessman and former Ohio state treasury official, Rankin has a good bio on paper. So maybe the dark-of-night-campaign announcement forshadows a dark-horse campaign.

But already you have to wonder about the success of a campaign against a seasoned and well-funded pol like Atwater. Still, compared to the last Democrat running for the office, Allie Braswell, Rankin doesn't look as if he'll embarrass the party.

Here's the press release:

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