HCFA to launch Y2K awareness week

The Health Care Financing Administration, the federal agency that manages Medicare, announced last week that it has designated Nov. 15-20 as National Medicare Year 2000 Testing Week, enabling health care providers to evaluate their billing systems in an end-to-end test with Medicare systems.

Although Medicare systems have been tested for the Year 2000 computer date problem, the week-long test will enable health care providers and their billing agents to troubleshoot problems in billing systems and Medicare claims submissions. It also will give health care providers time to develop fixes and to modify software and hardware as needed.

"This is just one of the ways we're getting the word out," said HCFA chief information officer Gary Christoph.

Christoph said HCFA meets regularly with trade associations such as the American Hospital Association and state-based groups, physicians and suppliers to discuss Year 2000 issues and progress.

The launch of National Medicare Year 2000 Testing Week, in conjunction with letters to fiscal intermediaries and submitters, should raise awareness, he said.

Earlier testing by Medicare contractors revealed that some submitters and providers were Year 2000 ready, but many were not. Submitters who sent claims

with dates in an eight-digit format (MM/DD/YYYY) found that the format alone did not ensure their data would be Year 2000-compliant.

To submit Year 2000 dates that are acceptable, providers must fix office computer codes and sometimes correct computers that are programmed to place a 19 at the beginning of each year listed in four digits, Christoph said.

"It's very easy to pass the [Year 2000] test without having [fixed] your own billing system - there's bridge software that can do that," he added. "They've only corrected the format for getting a claim in."

Limited Reach

HCFA has set a goal of testing 50 percent of Medicare claims volume with its 60 fiscal intermediaries and carriers, and 15 of those entities already have met or exceeded that goal, Christoph said.

However, those 15 carriers account for only 4.2 percent of the nation's 250,000 Medicare providers, leaving the bulk of the testing to the remaining 45 fiscal intermediaries and contractors, Christoph said.

Because of clearinghouses and other billing methods, a very small number of submitters account for a large percentage of the overall claims volume, he said.

To avoid payment problems in 2000, HCFA is urging submitters to take three steps: schedule future date testing with an appropriate Medicare carrier to assess the submitter's own system; consult HCFA's Web site (www.hcfa.gov/y2k) for information and contacts; and develop a contingency plan in case of an office or billing system failure.

"The point is, we really don't know. If you test, then you know," Christoph said. "Our hope is that they're OK. But what we don't want is for them to wait [until Jan. 1] and then fail."

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