Y2K Readiness Mixed, White House Report Says
By Stephen Barr and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Many critical parts of the U.S. economy, including banks, utilities and telephone companies, are on track to cope with the year 2000 computer bug, according to a White House progress report. But the health care industry, small businesses and foreign businesses were described as still slow to address the problem and facing the risk of significant electronic disruptions.
Tempting fate, some small businesses and local government agencies have adopted a "wait and see" strategy, opting to fix computer malfunctions only after they occur, said John A. Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion.
"We think it's a high-risk roll of the dice," Koskinen said, because computer technicians could face more requests for repair work in January than they can handle.
Koskinen made his remarks at a news conference at which the White House issued its first comprehensive assessment of efforts to repair computers that cannot tell the year 2000 from 1900. Computers that aren't repaired could spew out inaccurate data or crash.
Among the findings, based on industry surveys and other confidential data provided to the White House:
The health care industry continues to lag on so-called "Y2K" repairs. Computer problems that harm patient care are unlikely, Koskinen said, but electronic failures in record-keeping systems could hamper the submission of bills, likely forcing cash-short institutions to shut down.
Major pharmaceutical companies expect to be Y2K-ready by this summer, but the White House council wants more data on "supply chain" and emergency backup plans. It has little information on the status of international drug suppliers, a potentially troublesome group because about 90 percent of generic pharmaceuticals originate overseas, the report said.
International shipping also appears to face significant Y2K challenges, the report said. On a geographic basis, the report cited "significant concerns" about the readiness of the maritime transportation systems in the Middle East, East Asia, the former Soviet Union and Caribbean countries. It cited potential problems in the readiness of overseas ports, communication and navigation systems, and continuity of electric power.
Large U.S. telecommunications, power and financial services companies have made significant progress in fixing and testing Y2K-affected systems. Concerning electric power, the report said that more than two-thirds of critical computer systems have been repaired: "With continued progress and properly coordinated contingency planning, the nation's electric power supply and delivery systems will be able to operate reliably in the Year 2000."
The report also predicted that the date glitch "will not cause widespread or severe disruptions in the food supply" in the United States.
Koskinen said the government will name Y2K-troubled states and foreign countries later this year. "We are not in the business of trying to embarrass people, but on the other hand we certainly have an obligation to let everyone know what the status is," he said.
Because the industry surveys do not name specific companies or explore Y2K problems at the local level, Koskinen said the government will encourage communities to hold meetings at which local political leaders, business executives, emergency response officials and citizens can share information and make plans for potential Y2K problems.
"We think the national infrastructure will hold, but you've got to be prepared community by community, on your own," he said.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company