Social Security Killed Y2K Bug, President Says
By Stephen Barr
The Social Security Administration has resolved its Year 2000 computer problems, ensuring that monthly benefit checks to 48 million Americans will continue to be delivered without disruption, President Clinton announced yesterday.
"The millennium bug will not delay the payment of Social Security checks by a single day," Clinton said.
Social Security computer systems, which link to electronic payment systems at the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve, were tested and validated by a panel of independent experts as ready for operation on Jan. 1, 2000. "The system works, it is secure, and therefore older Americans can feel more secure," the president said.
The Year 2000 problem, or Y2K, stems from the use in many computer systems of a two-digit dating system that assumes the first two digits of the year are 1 and 9, a convention adopted years ago when coding space was at a premium. Without specialized reprogramming, the systems will recognize "00" not as 2000 but as 1900. That misinterpretation could cause the computers either to shut down or malfunction.
The government has launched a massive mobilization -- pulling thousands of workers off their regular jobs, diverting money from other projects and delaying long-scheduled technology modernization projects -- to fix computers for the so-called century date conversion. Estimates show the government will spend about $6.4 billion to fix the problem.
Although the government and private-sector companies have increased the pace of Year 2000 computer repairs, industry experts say they cannot predict whether the Y2K bug will cause economic damage to the nation, in part because a full year for repair work remains available. But some experts predict that electronic disruptions will hit small companies, some local governments and a number of foreign countries in 2000 because they waited too late to start the tedious repair effort or because they did not have the money or staff to complete the job.
Clinton's announcement yesterday reflected an emerging strategy within the White House to let the public know what federal programs will work or whether special arrangements will be needed to work around the Year 2000 glitch, an administration official said.
Last week, for example, White House and Labor Department officials announced that unemployment insurance benefits would be paid without disruption next year and in 2000, even though a dozen states are behind schedule and will have to use temporary computer fixes to sidestep their Y2K problems.
But several federal agencies are running behind schedule or have run into trouble fixing their computers. They include the departments of Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, State, Transportation and the Agency for International Development, according to Office of Management and Budget reports.
At the Social Security Administration, the Y2K effort began in 1989, with agency programmers sifting through 35 million lines of mainframe codes. The repair effort cost the agency about $33 million.
While members of Congress applauded Social Security's early start on the Y2K problem, some House Republicans criticized the Treasury Department's Financial Management Service (FMS) for getting off to a slow start on fixing its computers. FMS maintains computer systems that make about $1 trillion in payments each year on behalf of Social Security, the Veterans Affairs Department, the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies.
But FMS appears to have turned the corner on its Y2K problem. The Treasury agency began using Y2K-ready systems to make Social Security payments in early October and received certification from an independent contractor on Dec. 16 that those payment systems were in compliance for Year 2000 operation.
Almost all the work needed to make tax refunds and pay veterans and railroad retirement benefits is done, an FMS official said. Outside panels will be formed in coming weeks to certify those and other FMS systems, she said.
Clinton was joined yesterday by Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, Social Security Commissioner Kenneth Apfel and Kathy Adams, the Y2K expert at Social Security.
In an apparent attempt to reassure the public that the government will be able to manage any potential Y2K risks, Clinton said, "There are people like Kathy Adams working in all these agencies and state and local government, and all these businesses throughout the country, and they need to be encouraged. And those who have not yet undertaken this task need to get on it, and get on it now, because we have just a little more than a year to get the job done."
The White House event featured Pauline Johnson Jones, who turns 90 on Thursday and depends on Social Security and a federal pension. "There are many, many people who suffer and would suffer greatly if those checks did not come on time," she said.
Clinton also used the occasion to plug efforts to fashion a bipartisan solution to finance Social Security in the next century as the baby boom generation retires and Americans continue to live longer.
"The point I want to make to all of you is that we have the same obligation to fix the system in policy terms for the 21st century that these fine people we honor today have discharged in fixing the Y2K problem," he said.
Clinton drew a round of laughter from the crowd of government officials and their families when he described talking to Hillary Rodham Clinton about the Y2K problem. "She got so technophobic. . . . I gave her a little digital alarm clock for Christmas, and she gave it back to me, after I talked to her about it, and she said, 'Why don't you just go get me one that winds up, that I can change with my hand?'"
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