HCFA official: Medicare will be ready for Y2K

A top administrator at the Health Care Financing Administration last week said she is "relatively optimistic" that the Medicare provider payment systems will be free of Year 2000 computer problems, but medical devices still pose a threat.

HCFA administrator Nancy-Ann DeParle told a joint hearing of the House Health and Environment Subcommittee and the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee that Medi-care claims are expected to be paid "promptly and accurately" after Jan. 1, 2000, based on surveys received from participating health care providers.

"Providing quality care goes beyond billing and claims processing," DeParle said. "It depends on doctors, hospitals and other service providers ensuring that their medical equipment will work and their offices remain open. It also depends upon pharmaceutical and medical supply chains continuing to operate uninterrupted."

But Joel Willemssen, director of the Civil Agencies Information Systems office in the Accounting and Information Management division of the General Accounting Office, said he is less optimistic about HCFA's progress in making its payment systems Year 2000-compliant. Willems-sen said HCFA has not been "rigorous enough" in its testing.

"The health care sector has not made adequate progress regarding Y2K," Willemssen said. "HCFA lacks a detailed end-to-end testing plan. I'm more pessimistic. The health care sector is not in good shape" because of potential problems that it is not aware of.

According to HCFA, nearly 100 percent of Medicare Part B claims providers and more than 90 percent of Part A claims providers filed Year 2000-compliant forms last month with eight-digit date fields, with four digits marked for the year field. DeParle said HCFA is working with industry trade groups to bring the compliance rate to 100 percent for Part A and Part B claims.

Willemssen said medical devices such as magnetic resonance imaging systems, X-ray machines, pacemakers and cardiac monitors still appear to be vulnerable to the Year 2000 date change.

"Patient care is important, and that's the side of it we are all concerned about," DeParle said. "I'm dealing with the financing end of it."

Representatives from the Food and Drug Administration and the medical device industry declined to attend the joint hearing, subcommittee members said.

The American Hospital Association (AHA), which represents nearly 5,000 hospitals, health systems, networks and other health care providers, told the subcommittees that 90 percent of hospitals expect their medical devices to be Year 2000-compliant by year's end.

"The majority of the nation's hospitals expect to be completely Y2K-compliant by Jan. 1, 2000, based on the results of a nationally representative survey we conducted," said Ronald Margolis, chief information officer at the University of New Mexico Hospital, who represented AHA at the joint hearing.

AHA supports HCFA's claim that the Medicare provider payment systems will be free of Year 2000 computer glitches before the new millennium.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who chaired the joint hearing, said he commends the progress that HCFA and the health care industry have made on Year 2000 fixes. But a major test is quickly approaching, Upton warned.

"The critical test that still awaits HCFA and its Medicare contractors will begin this summer, when they will start to retest their systems," Upton said.

"With that in mind, HCFA will need to make sure that contingency plans are comprehensive enough to manage any mission-critical failures that may occur," he added.

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