HCFA: We're ready for Year 2000

Responding to claims by Congress and the General Accounting Office, a top technology official at the Health Care Financing Administration said last week that HCFA and the contractors that process Medi-care claims will have computer systems Year 2000-compliant by the end of March.

"Despite what you may read in the [trade newspapers]...we will be ready," John Van Walker, HCFA's senior adviser for technology, told a group of information technology industry officials at a briefing sponsored by the Bethes-da, Md., chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. "We are absolutely positive that our partners will have the systems in place."

HCFA has contracts with more than 60 intermediaries, such as insurance companies, to process some $250 billion worth of claims and medical bills for the Medicare health program for the elderly. Because it manages one of the largest programs in the federal government— one that 40 million Americans rely on for health care— HCFA's management of the Year 2000 problem has received unusual attention from Congress and the White House.

GAO and Congress have cited HCFA as one of the few agencies at risk of failing to have computer systems Year 2000-compliant. In September, GAO reported that "it is highly unlikely that all of the Medicare systems will be compliant in time to ensure the delivery of uninterrupted benefits and services into the Year 2000." The Office of Management and Budget has placed the Department of Health and Human Services, in which HCFA resides, on a critical list of agencies that have not shown sufficient progress in fixing computers for the millennium bug.

Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology and the lawmaker who grades agencies on their Year 2000 progress, gave HHS an F last month. "If HCFA does not accelerate its efforts dramatically, failure of Medicare's systems is inevitable and, thus, the ability to provide payments for benefits and services will be jeopardized."

But the criticism appears not to daunt HCFA. "Whether or not we can get an A or a B or a C doesn't change anything," Van Walker said. "We will be ready."

Don Meyer, a spokesman for Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem and a critic of how HCFA has managed its Year 2000 problem, said, "We don't believe that there is any chance" HCFA will fix all its internal and external mission-critical systems by the end of the year.

At issue in HCFA's Year 2000 process are two sets of systems:

-- One set is composed of HCFA's 92 internal systems, 25 of which are mission-critical. HCFA plans to finish testing Year 2000 fixes on all the mission-critical systems this week, said Robert Moore, deputy director of the Office of Information Services at HCFA.

-- The second set of computer systems is operated and maintained by the 68 companies and groups that process Medicare claims. Moore said all but seven of those systems are renovated for the Year 2000 problem. He said another group of contractors have renovated external systems that act as information-processing hubs for another six systems. Not all of those systems have been tested for Year 2000-compliance.

Moore, however, insisted that testing on all external systems will be complete by the end of March. "I've never been so sure of something in my life," he said.

Even if HCFA meets the March deadline, health care providers who share information with HCFA and the organizations that process Medicare claims remain a wild card. Van Walker said that if the providers are not compliant, their systems may pass bad data on to HCFA or the organizations that process claims.

"I think the best approach is to remain open-minded and not exude overconfidence in our ability to fix the problem," a staff member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee said.

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