Lawmakers Work to Keep Liability Bill Alive
By Stephen Barr
Senate Republicans and Democrats met privately yesterday afternoon and last night in an attempt to find a compromise on controversial legislation designed to shield companies from lawsuits and liability claims in the event of Year 2000 computer breakdowns.
The closed-door sessions included Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chief sponsor of Y2K liability limitation legislation; Ron Wyden (Ore.), his Democratic partner; Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah); Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah); Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.); and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.); Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.); and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
Without a compromise, the Y2K liability bill could die later this week if Republicans fail to find the 60 votes needed to keep the legislation moving, congressional aides said. Lott yesterday filed a motion to cut off debate and block opponents from amending the McCain bill. A vote on the motion probably will be held Thursday.
Before Lott acted, McCain complained that the bill was nearing the point where it was being "compromised into [being] meaningless." McCain offered a substitute version yesterday that he and Wyden described as containing major revisions, but Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) dismissed any contentions that the substitute represented compromise as "garbage."
Hollings, McCain's chief adversary on the Senate floor, said he had talked with Intel Corp. Chairman Andrew Grove but could not reach agreement with him over a provision that would require courts to hold defendants responsible only for the proportion of Y2K harm caused by their conduct or product.
The Y2K glitch stems from the use of two-digit date fields in many computers' operating software, which will cause them to interpret "00" as 1900, not as 2000, and to malfunction. An array of industry groups has backed McCain's bill, which would cap punitive damages and require a "cure" period before a lawsuit could be filed.
Hollings laced his floor remarks with accusations that Republicans were acting to please the business lobby and to obtain political contributions from Silicon Valley companies.
Talking to reporters, Hollings said, "I'm doing my best to kill the bill."
'A Lot of Unknowns' in Health Care
Nancy-Ann Min DeParle, the head of the Medicare program, expressed confidence yesterday that the computer glitch would not disrupt billings and payments to doctors and hospitals, but she said "there are a lot of unknowns" about how it might affect patient care and medical equipment.
Health care experts appearing before House Commerce subcommittees stressed that health care providers need to test the Y2K status of patient management systems, clinical information systems and medical devices, such as defibrillators and infusion pumps. Even elevators need checking.
Joel C. Willemssen, a Y2K expert at the General Accounting Office, said the health care industry faces "much work" on Y2K and that "the level of progress is not reassuring." But a lack of information makes it difficult to gauge the seriousness of the Y2K problem facing the industry, which got off to a late start on repairs, he and others said.
DeParle left little doubt that she thinks computers at the Health Care Financing Administration and those operated by private insurance contractors will be tested and ready to serve Medicare beneficiaries in January. "I will do whatever it takes," she said.
HCFA announced that it appears likely Medicare will update payments to doctors and hospitals in October and in mid-January. Last year, HCFA was criticized by some House Republicans when the agency disclosed it would delay the scheduled payment updates to limit software changes that could complicate Y2K fixes and tests.
But, DeParle said yesterday, "our success means we can make the provider payment updates without jeopardizing our systems."
How Safe Is the Water?
The health care industry is not the only sector where Y2K experts are seeking more information. A General Accounting Office report prepared for Sens. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) reported that "little is known about the Year 2000 status of the nation's water and wastewater facilities."
Water plants often use automated control systems and equipment to obtain, treat and distribute drinking water. A GAO survey found only two states--Colorado and Minnesota--taking action to assess the Y2K readiness of drinking-water plants. An additional 28 states, including Maryland and Virginia, were notifying waterworks operators about the Y2K glitch, whereas the remaining 20 were labeled by the GAO as "inactive."
"This report reaffirms that states, cities and towns must double their efforts to ensure that vital services continue to function on Jan. 1, 2000," Bennett said.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company