GAO: VA needs more Y2K testing

The Department of Veterans Affairs—the Cabinet-level agency that Congress considers to have made the most progress in fixing Year 2000 computer problems—still faces Year 2000 loose ends that could jeopardize its performance, according to the General Accounting Office.

Joel Willemssen, director of civil agencies information systems at GAO, last week told the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that remaining Year 2000 problems could hinder the agency's ability to reliably deliver health care and benefits to millions of veterans and their families.

"VA continues to make progress in its Y2K readiness," Willemssen said. "However, key actions remain to be performed. It is critical that these concerns be addressed if VA is to continue reliably delivering benefits and health care."

Willemssen said the VA must still conduct final testing of mission-critical systems and end-to-end testing of agency processes that rely on computers, testing of heating/air conditioning systems or other systems that the Year 2000 problem may affect and testing of systems used to manage pharmaceutical operations at the VA.

Leonard Bourget, Year 2000 program manager for the Veterans Health Administration, testified that none of the seven mail-order pharmacies that the VA uses to fill about 36 million prescriptions per year is Year 2000-compliant. But he said the pharmacies should be fully compliant by August.

Other VA officials testifying at the hearing assured congressional overseers that the agency will continue to work steadily on the problem. But VA deputy secretary Hershel Gober said he could not guarantee that the VA will not be affected to some extent by the Year 2000 problem, despite the agency's work with vendors, power companies and other VA suppliers that have their own Year 2000 problems to solve.Still, Gober said he is confident that the VA will be mostly Year 2000-compliant by Jan. 1. But he said he is not "fully confident" that the agency will get through the date change unscathed. "Only a fool would be fully confident of anything," Gober said.

GAO's Willemssen agreed that uncertainties remain for the VA despite the agency's good standing regarding the Year 2000 problem. Recently, Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Government Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee, gave the agency a grade of "A" for its Year 2000 progress. No other Cabinet agency received a grade that high.

"No absolute guarantee can be made that systems will work the way that we think they will work on Jan. 1, 2000," Willemssen said. He emphasized the importance for agencies to finalize contingency plans if the Year 2000 problem cripples their systems or other organizations they closely work with, such as equipment suppliers or power companies.

For months, VA officials have maintained that in order to fully eliminate Year 2000 vulnerability, the agency needs to fix not only its own systems but also those of third-party suppliers and partners, such as software vendors, power companies, medical-equipment suppliers and biomedical-device makers.

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