Health organizations could be bit by Y2K bug
Most experts agree that the so-called Millennium Bug, on the whole, is an overblown concept. When computers and other date-sensitive systems turn over to the year 2000, we’re pretty sure that planes will not fall from the sky, that the banks will not fail, and your VCR will function normally (if you knew how to program it to begin with).
But one sector which still bears watching is the health care industry. While most of our Y2K fears may be bunk, a failure here begets the scariest of consequences.
The health care industry relies on time-sensitive equipment for a number of vital tasks, and it has been notoriously slow in making sure that it will be Y2K compliant.
A survey in December 1998 by the health care organization RX2000 Solutions Institute stated that 94 percent of U.S. health care professionals agreed that their industry was not doing enough to prepare for potential Y2K problems. And in January 1999, Business 2.0 Magazine gave the health care industry a grade of D-minus in Y2K sector readiness.
Still, you shouldn’t worry too much about actual hardware problems in your hospital room, should you happen to be admitted on New Year’s Eve of this year. The real Y2K problems in health care are more likely to show up on paper.
Each year more than one million doctors and other health care providers and suppliers submit more than one billion claims to Medicare, on behalf of approximately 40 million Medicare beneficiaries.
The vast majority of these claims are submitted electronically – the high level of automation allowing the federal government to keep costs down for both Medicare recipients and health care providers. If it had to process all those claims on paper, the government costs would skyrocket, perhaps even collapsing the system as we know it.
This reliance on automation has made the Y2K computer fix a major challenge for the Health Care Financing Administration, the agency that administers the Medicare program.
The HCFA faces the enormous task of testing and certifying 30 million lines of code on the 78 computer systems operated by its contractors.
But the HCFA claims that it has Y2K under control.
That seems to be debatable.
“We are confident that remaining problems are minor, or do not significantly compromise the claims processing function,” said HCFA Administrator Nancy DeParle, in a report to the Senate House Ways and Means Committee last month.
Meanwhile, however, the General Accounting Office had something different to report. GAO, the investigating and auditing arm of Congress, in February charged that HCFA’s stated progress in the Y2K arena is “considerably overstated.” HCFA listed 54 computer systems as Y2K compliant, even though some malfunctioned during tests. The GAO report listed one of the systems as failing to recognize “00” as a valid year.
The health care industry is also apparently lagging in other related areas. A survey released in January by the Odin Group – a Y2K research and advisory service – stated that many health care companies had not developed Y2K contingency plans in areas such as billing and customer management.
“This industry is very complex, there are a lot of options,” said Daniel Nutkis, president of the Odin Group. “These companies are even discussing contingencies with each other.”
The Odin Group has been working with several of the industry’s big players, including Aetna, Baxter International, Cardinal Health, Cigna, McKesson and United Health Care. The aim is to develop contingency plans, such as strategies in obtaining medical supplies if hospitals are unable to place orders electronically.
“Because of extreme fragmentation in the industry, it is vulnerable to Y2K problems,” said John Parker, Chairman of the VitalSigns 2000 Oversight Committee. “No one knows what will happen with potential disruptions.”
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