House moves to head off Y2K snafu in Social Security

A House subcommittee, worried that the Year 2000 problem could disrupt the delivery of about 50 million Social Security retirement and disability payments, plans to study whether to transfer the responsibility of the payments from the Treasury Department to the Social Security Administration.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), vice chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology, last week said SSA should be in charge of processing its own benefit payments because its computer systems are better prepared for the Year 2000 problem than those at Treasury, the agency now responsible for processing payments for the Social Security retirement and the Supplemental Security Income programs. About 65 percent of the payments are deposited electronically.

Sessions offered an amendment to the Government Waste, Fraud and Error Reduction Act of 1998 that would transfer the payment responsibility to SSA, but the subcommittee voted to research the proposal and discuss it with the agencies. Members, however, expect the proposal to be brought up again in coming weeks before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee.

In a recent Year 2000 "report card" issued by subcommittee chairman Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.), Treasury received a C for its progress in fixing computers to accept dates after December 1999, while SSA received an A-plus. Although SSA is on top of its Year 2000 problem, results could be disastrous if an agency with a more serious Year 2000 problem is responsible for a significant piece of SSA's work, Sessions said.

"Because of the dismal performance in the area of [the Year 2000 problem], I propose that we move from the Financial Management Service to the Social Security Administration the ability to process checks distributed to the nation's retirees," he said.

A high-ranking FMS official said Sessions' proposal is unnecessary. "The [FMS] has been working closely with the [SSA] to prepare for the Year 2000 problem, and we have made the necessary changes at both ends," said Ken Papaj, deputy commissioner of FMS.

Papaj said the two agencies have been testing data exchanges since March and will wrap up testing around August. "Both FMS and SSA are confident that FMS will be fully prepared to handle these needed changes," he said.

Yvette Jackson, SSA's deputy commissioner for finance, administration and management, said her agency has not explored the feasibility of moving the payment-processing function from Treasury's FMS to SSA.

Industry representatives said the shift may be too much to manage with just 18 months left before 2000. "My gut reaction— what would be anybody's gut reaction— [is that moving] the check processing to SSA from Treasury is no small undertaking," said Olga Grkavac, senior vice president of the Information Technology Association of America's Systems Integration Division. "Is this really a gem of an idea, or is it something that has no chance of success?"

Jim Kerrigan of Colmar Corp., a Reston, Va.-based market research firm, said, "I think the worst thing Congress can do is give the agencies any more work— the absolute worst." Kerrigan served as the top information resources official at Treasury in the early 1980s.

Kerrigan said Congress may do agencies more harm than good if it tries to "micromanage" every aspect of the Year 2000 problem. "In general, you get the feeling that Congress still doesn't get it," he said. "If [Congress would] only leave the agencies alone for a year— not mess with anything, just leave them alone— I think they'd have a much better chance of solving their problems.... To me, it doesn't make any sense at all— like throwing a drowning man an anchor."

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