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  Data Exchanges With States in Question

By Stephen Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 1999; Page A27

A number of important federal programs deliver benefits and services through electronic data exchanges with states, an area at risk because of the Year 2000 computer glitch. Yesterday, the Office of Management and Budget reported that 65 percent of those exchanges will work on Jan. 1.

But the OMB report underscored the difficult nature of collecting such information and using it to figure out whether any next steps or remedies are needed. Some states respond slowly or not at all to federal requests for information, some federal agencies have trouble digesting information once they get it, and sometimes states and federal agencies simply stumble over the format of the information.

For example, in the new OMB report, 33 states do not provide information about the Y2K status of computer systems used to determine eligibility for Medicaid, the multibillion-dollar federal-state entitlement program that pays medical bills for the poor. To learn more about state readiness, the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA) will send staff and contractors to each state by the end of April.

OMB also reported that federal agencies were still trying to collect information from all the states on the Year 2000 status of the child nutrition and low-income heating assistance programs.

A handful of states signaled that they might not have federal-state data exchanges fixed until the last moment. Five states said they would not have their food stamp systems repaired until October at the earliest. Six states said systems for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, known as WIC, would not be ready until sometime between October and December, cutting it pretty close to the new year.

The OMB report, based on information collected as of Feb. 12, did not identify the states.

"We are committed to continuing our work with the states, and with our private-sector partners for service delivery, especially in areas where they are projecting late 1999 target dates for completion of Y2K work," said G. Edward DeSeve, OMB's deputy director for management.

Most Agencies Are On Track for March Deadline

Federal agencies face a March 31 deadline, set by the White House, for completion of Y2K work on their most critical computer systems. That's designed to allow enough time to test and retest systems for overlooked problems.

The most recent OMB snapshot found 79 percent of the government's critical systems ready to operate Jan. 1, 2000, up from 61 percent in the agency's last quarterly report. DeSeve said he is confident that more than 90 percent of the government's critical systems will meet the March deadline, 12 days from now.

But three of the federal government's 24 largest agencies "are not making adequate progress" and continued on OMB's most-troubled list. They were the Agency for International Development (AID), the Department of Health and Human Services and the Transportation Department.

Progress at AID stalled when a computer system failed testing after officials believed it had been fixed. The agency "has taken aggressive steps to address any management or systems issues that may have caused this [date] dependency to remain undetected until testing," OMB said.

Y2K problems stem from the use of two-digit date fields in many computers, which will interpret "00" not as 2000 but as 1900, causing the systems to malfunction or crash.

HHS remains on the OMB troubled list because of problems at HCFA, which oversees Medicare programs run by contractors and Medicaid programs administered through state agencies. The Transportation Department's troubled status grows out of the late start on Y2K by the Federal Aviation Administration.

FAA Administrator Jane F. Garvey expressed confidence at a House hearing Monday that the agency is catching up and will wrap up its critical Y2K work on its own June 30 deadline.

Three Cabinet departments--Defense, Energy and State--have moved off the troubled-agencies list since the last OMB evaluation. The Defense Department, though, expects that 156 of its 2,306 critical systems will miss the March 31 deadline.

Much Work Left to Be Done on White House Systems

The White House also has its share of Y2K woe. A chart in the OMB report disclosed that the president's Office of Administration does not anticipate Y2K compliance until October, although White House personal computers will be fixed by June.

In its commentary on the Executive Office of the President, which has 68 critical systems, OMB noted that "a new project management team has established a management strategy."

OMB Requests Backup Plans

Always eager to create new government shorthand, OMB warned agencies to prepare BCCPs by the end of June. Those are "business continuity and contingency plans" to deliver services if computers crash, inside the agency or outside its control.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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