Medicare still faces Y2K obstacles

Several Year 2000-related problems remain for the Health Care Financing Administration, which oversees the nation's Medicare program, even though the agency has repaired all of its internal computer systems for the computer glitch, federal officials told Congress Monday.

HCFA—which manages health insurance for about 39 million people—processes more than $280 billion in health claims annually. Smooth operation of the claims process after Dec. 31, 1999, will depend on HCFA's internal computer systems as well as those operated by third-party Medicare contractors and health care providers, according to witnesses who testified today before two House subcommittees overseeing the Year 2000 computer date-conversion problem.

But Gary Christoph, chief information officer at HCFA, told the joint hearing, "We continue to have serious concerns about the readiness of the Medicare providers."

Joel Willemssen, director for civil agencies information systems issues at the General Accounting Office, said HCFA continues to test data exchange with its third-party contractors, in some cases uncovering errors that would cause real problems in 2000.

The full extent of Year 2000 problems with the providers that give care to Medicare recipients remains unknown. "As of last week, less than 2 percent of 230,000 hospitals, nursing homes, doctors and other health care providers who submit claims to Medicare had tested their computer systems with Medicare contractors," said Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology. Horn's subcommittee met jointly with the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Technology.

Meanwhile, HCFA officials have been working to "recertify" that their internal computer systems are Year 2000-compliant. The recertification follows routine maintenance and upgrade of the systems, Christoph said. He also said the agency needs to recertify its systems following congressionally mandated changes to the Medicare program, which required the agency to reprogram some of its systems to deal with the changes.

Willemssen said HCFA should try to test all of its critical computer systems as it works to recertify them. HCFA has set Nov. 1 as the deadline to have all of its mission-critical systems ready. The short deadline has made it difficult for the agency to conduct integrated tests involving all of its key systems, Christoph said.


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