SSA mainframes to feel drug load

Medicare's prescription drug program will increase the workload on computers at the Social Security Administration in a few months, officials say.

Prescription drug benefits, which have been added to the Medicare program, will increase the workload on mainframe computers at the Social Security Administration as early as May, SSA officials say.

SSA systems will be among those affected, although the major impact of prescription drug benefits will be on systems at the Department of Health and Human Services, said Philip Becker Jr., associate commissioner for telecommunications and systems operations at SSA.

"We have about 450 MIPS that we are reserving for Medicare modernization," Becker said. "By the end of the year we expect that to be about 1,000 MIPS." As a measure of computer processing speed, MIPS stands for millions of instructions per second.

SSA typically adds mainframe capacity on a just-in-time basis, Becker said, and the additional capacity needed for processing prescription drug benefits is no exception. "We do forecasts every six months and acquire the capacity right before the months of need," he said.

The idea is to keep systems maintenance costs, the annual fees charged by systems vendors, as low as possible. "If we buy too early, we're paying for maintenance we don't need," Becker said.

SSA officials have to acquire more than additional hardware capacity to process the new drug benefits that the Medicare Modernization Act authorized to take effect in 2006. "There are pieces of applications here at SSA that we need to change to support the interfaces with the new Medicare program," Becker said.

To test those changes, SSA officials are seeking additional licenses for software they use to simulate the time or date of events that will take place in the future. "TicToc [from Isogon] was a piece of software we acquired for the year 2000 transition," Becker said. SSA officials continue to use that software to simulate advanced dates, he said.

"The activity associated with the Medicare applications won't begin until the May-June timeframe for us," Becker said. But before that activity begins, he said, "we need to simulate [it] and look at the impact on our other applications."

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