Agencies ramping up outreach programs

The federal government is stepping up its efforts to compel outside organizations that share data with agencies to fix their Year 2000 computer problems, administration and agency officials told a congressional panel last week.

The departments of Transportation and Health and Human Services as well as other agencies are concerned that organizations that do not fix their computers to recognize 21st-century dates may unknowingly provide these agencies with corrupt data, John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

"The federal government has a responsibility to exercise leadership in this area," Koskinen said. "Everyone has an interest in a smooth transition to the Year 2000 by organizations operating independently of the federal government."

One such agency that relies heavily on contractors is the Health Care Financing Administration, which is part of HHS. HCFA recently sent Congress an amendment to the Medicare statute that would give the agency more leverage in working with the 70 contractors that process billions of dollars' worth of Medicare claims every year, Kevin Thurm, deputy secretary of HHS, told the committee.

Many contractors are far behind in their Year 2000-compliance work, but current legislation limits the department's ability to exert "financial control and pressure" over these contractors, Thurm said.

For example, some contracts provide for automatic renewal with no fixed term.

"Our proposal will provide [Donna Shalala, the secretary of HHS] with greater flexibility for managing the Medicare program and allow increased discretion in contracting for claims processing and payment functions," Thurm said. "Our proposal would allow the secretary to contract competitively with any qualified entity, including insurance companies," which would expand the pool of potential contractors.

Greater competition "is an essential tool to ensure that Medicare computer systems are modified to continue processing claims in the Year 2000," Thurm said.

DOT is concerned about the potential problems with systems that track international commerce if other countries do not fix their computers, said Mortimer Downey, deputy secretary of DOT. "It has been troubling for us to learn that in many other countries, the Year 2000 problem is not being addressed with the same sense of urgency as in this country," Downey said. "Airborne and waterborne commerce are at risk if automated infrastructures worldwide fail to operate."

Contingency Plans

While the department has developed contingency plans to deal with system failures, "it is conceivable that these plans may be rendered ineffective if critical components of the infrastructure, [which is] outside of our control, are unavailable," Downey said.

To address the problem, the department is working with members of international aviation, maritime and surface transportation communities to identify specific areas of concern, he said, "but these efforts require support at the highest levels in order to minimize the domestic and international consequences of unresolved Year 2000 problems."

Downey said he was confident that DOT's systems would be fixed, tested and ready to record dates by the turn of the century. He also said the Federal Aviation Administration's navigation system deals with disruptions, such as power outages, daily, and he said there were back-up systems that are the backbone of the FAA's contingency plans.

However, Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, said the agency already has a vast amount of interfaces with outside systems that may not be Year 2000-compliant, and those outside the system may corrupt those that have been fixed.

"How can you say at this stage of the game that it doesn't look like there [aren't] going to be any disruptions?" Thompson asked. "You're used to dealing with disruptions but nothing like this."

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