Time running out on VBA systems fix

The Department of Veterans Affairs' Veterans Benefits Administration could face widespread computer systems failures resulting in delays in benefits to millions of veterans if the agency does not act promptly to head off its Year 2000 problem a General Accounting Office official testified last week.

"VBA's failure would be felt by millions of people if the benefits and services on which they rely were interrupted " said Joel C. Willemssen director of information resources management in GAO's Accounting and Information Management Division. Willemssen testified June 26 before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.

At issue are millions of lines of computer code lying in software used by the VBA and other VA agencies. Programs are set up to record dates in a two-digit format in which a year such as 1902 is recorded as "02." But headaches are expected with the coming of 2000 as software designed to read computerized dates and to take action based on those dates will not readily know whether "02" means 1902 or 2002. The quandary is one that could bring the calculation and payments of benefits to a screeching halt - at the VBA as well as throughout the federal government.

The VA already has spent several million dollars investigating its susceptibility to the Year 2000 problem according to D. Mark Catlett the VA's chief information officer. The agency spent $4 million on investigating and fixing the problem in fiscal 1996. This fiscal year the agency estimates it will spend $49 million and expects to spend the same amount next fiscal year. VA officials estimate spending another $42 million in fiscal 1999.

Catlett said money to fight the Year 2000 problem will come initially from within the agency which spends some $600 million a year including funds for full-time employees on information resources management. "First and foremost we'll reprogram funds within " he said. Congressional appropriations committees also are showing signs of flexible budgeting for the VA to help it fix the Year 2000 problem Catlett said.

But the risks are still there according to Willemssen who highlighted four areas of risk at the June 26 hearing. The primary risk he said lies in the strength of the VBA's Year 2000 program management office.

"A critical technical deficiency is VBA's lack of an overall integrated systems architecture or blueprint to guide and constrain the development of replacement systems and the evolution of related information systems " he testified.

Other risky obstacles include the fact that much work remains in determining whether VBA information systems now are Year 2000-compliant. Furthermore the VBA has not developed Year 2000 contingency plans for all its critical systems and it has not gathered sufficient information about the costs and risks associated with Year 2000 activities Willemssen said.

"Time is certainly running out " said subcommittee chairman Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.). The time crunch was underscored by a computerized clock projected onto a large screen that let everyone know that the VA had only two years six months four days 13 hours and 41 minutes until the 2000 Catlett testified. If that were not enough a large posterboard sign with black letters on a white background let them know that there were only "918 Days Left."

"VBA has redirected its efforts and made Year 2000 its No. 1 organization priority " Catlett testified. "VBA has completed the assessment phase of its systems. VBA's plan is to complete the renovation phase by November 1998 validation by December 1998 and implementation by June 1999."

But the news was not enough to calm all the concerns of subcommittee members. Explaining that in the private sector failure to produce can mean termination for those responsible Everett asked Catlett to submit for the record a list of people responsible for handling the Year 2000 problem at the VA. Everett also asked whether the Defense Department will be able to communicate electronically with the VA if the Year 2000 problem is not fixed by Jan. 1 2000.

"That is a major concern of ours too " said Willemssen explaining that data that is not Year 2000-compliant could corrupt other data when passed from agency to agency. "This could turn out to be the Achilles' heel within the government - the data-exchange issue."

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