Christoph heeds a call for help

There is something about public service that sparks the soul of Gary Christoph chief information officer at the Health Care Financing Administration.

Christoph wearing a rust-brown suit a striped shirt and a silk multicolored bow tie explained that following a philosophy of helping others can help you discover "what you are all about."

"I think that there are some Eastern philosophies that are based on the premise that you walk by and hear somebody who's trapped and fallen in a well and you have an obligation to help them out " Christoph said.

Overcoming Problems

Christoph who became CIO last October is trying to lift HCFA out of its own ditch of problems not the least of which was last year's cancellation of the agency's 4-year-old program to develop the Medicare Transaction System.

HCFA estimated MTS which was designed to con solidate the numerous systems that process the $210 billion worth of medical bills for the nation's health program for the elderly to cost about $150 million. However the General Accounting Office estimated the system would have cost $1 billion to develop and install. HCFA ended up spending about $80 million on the failed effort according to GAO.

Rather than describing the incident as a disappointment Christoph would rather view it as a learning experience. "I would not characterize it as a loss because we did get deliverables such as what amounts to an early-level design specification for the claims-processing environment " he said.

"We learned some lessons about project management we learned some things that did not work we learned some things that did work " Christoph added. "And we understand better as an agency what it takes to undertake a project of this magnitude. These are not easy lessons and it's part of a changing mindset and changing habits in government can be hard."

Christop h described his agency as a "stovepipe organization" that— like many other agencies— tends to be "very conservative and slow to change." He said HCFA's responsibility of providing medical claims benefits to 38 million people nationwide presents many opportunities to make a difference.

But quick change is not what Christoph has in mind. While he said he relishes the chance to oversee HCFA's transition away from large legacy systems he also wants to take his time deciding what kind of information technology environment will serve the agency in the future.

"Instead of doing things in chunks and grand projects we want to do things in a more evolutionary and modular fashion and continue to evolve with technology— not do it in an episodic way " Christoph said.

A careful moderate manner seems to fit a man who describes himself as an apolitical technocrat.

During his student days at the University of Chicago in 1968 Christoph kept away from the anti-war protests and civil rights demonstrations . He explained that he did not learn compassion from the social revolution of the 1960s but rather from his early life in Chicago.

"I was raised by my mother to be compassionate to be sensitive to others' pain and to others' feelings " he said. "My father taught me the values of hard work ethics and that rewards come from doing a good job."

A Background in Science

Certainly both parents impressed upon their son the value of a good education. That ultimately led to Christoph's graduation in 1967 from the California Institute of Technology with a cum laude bachelor's degree in chemistry. Two years later he attended the University of Chicago where he gained his master's degree in chemistry and a doctorate in chemical physics.

It was through his work studying molecular biology that he learned about computers. After graduation Christoph spent eight years at Ohio State University teaching physical chemistry. His scientific background coupled with his technical skills landed him a job at L os Alamos National Laboratory where he served as a member of the technical staff working on computing research and applications.

"I think a lot of motivation for being a scientist is to try to make life better and unravel nature to understand how it works so that you can control things like disease " he said.

Christoph believes that his technical background and his skills as a communicator which have been fine-tuned as a result of his years of teaching are attributes that most prepared him to tackle the challenges ahead.

Already Christoph has put the Year 2000 computer glitch at the top of his agency's agenda. "It's the biggest thing on our radar screen " he said.

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