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  HCFA v. GAO: Yes, We Are. No, You're Not.

By Stephen Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 1999; Page A17

The Health Care Financing Administration, which oversees the Medicare program, and the General Accounting Office still hold differing opinions on the year 2000 computer risks facing the agency.

Nearly two months ago, GAO, the congressional watchdog agency, described HCFA's Y2K progress as "considerably overstated." HCFA officials responded that the problems outlined by GAO were minor and reiterated their confidence that Medicare will make timely payments to hospitals and doctors in January 2000.

But GAO, in a briefing last week to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, suggested that Medicare remains at risk because critical computer systems face significant software changes and likely will need more rigorous testing. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee's chairman, said HCFA has made significant progress on Y2K but "faces a tight schedule for bringing Medicare systems up to speed. The agency is behind on the extensive testing that is necessary for determining Year 2000 readiness."

HCFA Administrator Nancy-Ann Min DeParle, however, said less than 1 percent of Medicare software would be changed over the next few months. She acknowledged that HCFA got a late start on Y2K but said, "We are doing much better than most people would have a right to expect on a plan jammed into 18 months."

GAO told Senate staffers that upgrades and changes to reflect legislative mandates will be made through June to the HCFA central file, which authorizes Medicare claims payments. The central file serves as a key system for the 75 claims processing systems operated by contractors across the country.

Those software changes raise questions about whether HCFA has enough time left in the year to retest the systems and get them certified as Y2K compliant, GAO told Senate staffers. GAO also raised concerns about whether testing of the Medicare systems could be more rigorous. In some tests, GAO indicated, HCFA knew the percentage of code that had been checked but did not know which program functions were covered by the tests. HCFA has asked contractors to provide lists so that the agency can track which functions have been tested.

DeParle, however, said, "We are doing very rigorous testing, and GAO says it is not enough, and I want to get to the bottom of that."

The Bug and the Green Grocer

Mark Yarsike, owner of a produce market in the Detroit suburbs, describes himself as "the first person in the world to ever file a Y2K suit."

He's also symbolic of how Capitol Hill likes to stage hearings, mixing in victims, small business owners and experts--pro and con--alongside representatives of the powerful interests that frequently have high stakes riding on the outcome of congressional decisions. Yarsike has told his story four times on the Hill as Congress debates legislation that would shield companies from class action lawsuits and liability claims in the event of Y2K computer failures.

His parents, he testified, came from Poland and set up a small store with a $500 cash register. When he opened his market, Yarsike said, he spent $100,000 for a computer system that could be used as a cash register and to track inventory.

But on opening day in August 1995, a credit card with a 2000 expiration date caused his registers to crash. "We could not process a single credit card or take cash or checks. We could not make one sale. People began drifting out, leaving full carts of groceries behind," he said. He called the company that sold him the computer system and technicians made more than 200 visits but could not keep the registers running. Yarsike junked the system and purchased a new one.

He also hired a lawyer and went to court, recouping some of his financial losses.

Yarsike's near-financial disaster turned him into a crusader against House and Senate bills to limit Y2K liability. Congress, Yarsike said, is trying to pass "a law on something that they shouldn't step into."

Fill 'er Up, but Not All at Once

Homeowners should fill their heating oil tanks for the winter in case Y2K problems disrupt oil supplies, Robert Kripowicz, deputy assistant secretary for fossil energy at the Department of Energy, told the Senate's Year 2000 committee, Reuters reported.

But apparently, not all homeowners should do this at once. Rear Adm. George Naccara said the public should not hoard petroleum products or fill tanks a day or two before New Year's Day, because that could disrupt energy supplies.

"We understand that that act alone, repeated nationwide, could lead to shortages," he said.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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