VA says it will meet Y2K deadline

Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs last week said they will get all computers for the Year 2000 problem fixed, but the reliability of commercial products will ultimately determine their success.

The VA has written much of the computer code in the systems it uses to manage information on veterans' health care, which gives the agency more insight into what systems are Year 2000-compliant and which ones are not. "That's what has helped us," said Ernesto Castro, the VA's Year 2000 program manager, in an interview with FCW last week.

But the VA is less certain about the Year 2000 compliance of its commercial information technology products, ranging from Microsoft Corp. software to medical devices such as pacemakers, Castro said. VA officials are checking with the manufacturers of medical devices and the software that is used to monitor and program them to learn if the devices and software are Year 2000-compliant, Castro said.

VA began looking for Year 2000 problems in 1996 and have found that about 80 percent of its systems were not Year 2000-compliant. About 60 percent of those noncompliant systems have been repaired and put back into operation, and the department is on track to renovate all its systems by March 1999, Castro said.

The spotlight on the VA's Year 2000 problem has been more intense than it has at some other agencies, because if the Year 2000 problem affects medical equipment, it could result in deaths at VA medical centers, some critics said.

But the agency's plan should minimize the risk of Year 2000 computer failures. Coordination between VA headquarters and medical centers at the local level should ensure that lives are not lost because of computer malfunctions, VA officials said. Processing veterans' benefits payments early— before Dec. 31, 1999— will ensure that veterans get their checks. But reliance on the products of others remains the wild card in the VA's Year 2000 scenario.

"We can control certain things," Castro said. "But when we have to go out and rely on vendors, the vendors are ultimately the ones fixing issues with their products and services."

In a recent statement, Kenneth Kizer, undersecretary for health at VA, said his agency's survey of 1,600 medical equipment manufacturers in the past 10 months has turned up 692 companies that are willing to certify that their products are Year 2000-compliant. He said 32 manufacturers have reported that their devices are not compliant and are no longer supported, and 102 manufacturers said they produce equipment that is not compliant, but that the problem is being fixed. Another 53 companies are still analyzing their equipment for date problems, and 30 percent of companies failed to respond to four queries, Kizer said.

Castro said that with many medical devices, such as pacemakers, the Year 2000 problem is not an apocalyptic issue because pacemakers run according to an electronic clock, not an electronic calendar that would be susceptible to the Year 2000 date problem.

However, for some medical devices the VA uses, the Year 2000 problem may be a serious issue. One maker of an automatic radiation dosage device has advised the department not to use its machines after Dec. 31, 1999.

But reliance on more mainstream commercial off-the-shelf software products, which are used for managing the information the VA has on veterans and on its internal operations, poses the biggest Year 2000 challenge, Castro said.

With some vendors whose products VA uses, finding out the extent to which the Year 2000 problem affects their products is not too difficult. For example, Microsoft's World Wide Web site offers an extensive rundown of its products and their level of Year 2000 compliance.

Scott Bounds, architectural engineer for the federal arm of Microsoft, said his company has used its site and sales representatives to let customers know which Microsoft products are compliant, which ones are not and how Microsoft products can be made compliant.

But not all vendors are sure of how compliant their products are— not even Microsoft, Castro said. As of this month, for example, Microsoft is still testing products that include its Excel 5 spreadsheet software, Bounds said. According to Microsoft's Web site, Year 2000 testing for Version 7 of Access Database Developer's Toolkit is on-

going, as is testing for BackOffice Server for Windows NT 4.0.

"What we're worried about is third-party [products]. [Vendors] have to tell us they're compliant," Castro said.

Delores Moorehead, special assistant for information management and technology at the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said Year 2000 glitches could still affect the VA if the power grid that supports VA hospitals fails, rendering electrical medical equipment useless.

The VA, therefore, still must work on its plans for providing services in the wake of a Year 2000 catastrophe beyond the department's control, Moorehead said.

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