The latest buzz on the Year 2000 computer glitch centers on how to make personal preparations for Jan. 1. Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) has provided a new Y2K Leading Indicator: He plans to stockpile water in a 55-gallon drum at his Salt Lake City home--just to be on the safe side.
Bennett disclosed his personal plan while chairing a recent Senate hearing on community preparedness. For community groups and others worried about Y2K, the senator's statements serve as something of a barometer on the evolving dimensions of the so-called millennium bug.
In the past, Bennett indicated that he was following a more modest strategy, focused on a few extra cans of food, flashlights and batteries--what most prudent Americans should have around the house on long winter weekends.
The Utah senator also advocates keeping paper copies of financial records, such as bank statements, credit card receipts, retirement accounts and loan documents, to protect against billing or accounting errors.
He has urged Americans to talk with their local officials about Y2K readiness in their communities. "Everyone needs to be able to prepare based on information they've gathered about their own community's Y2K preparedness," said Bennett spokesman Don Meyer.
Concerns at Local Level
The tricky part for many government officials is how to promote preparedness without causing panic. Federal officials believe vital government services and the national infrastructure--electric power and telephones--will hold when computers make the transition to "00."
But they remain uncertain about what will happen in towns and cities across the country. "The greatest domestic risk for Y2K-related failures is at the local level," said John A. Koskinen, President Clinton's Y2K coordinator.
Koskinen, who chairs the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, fears that too many communities have not paid adequate attention to the problem or have shown "a great reluctance" to share Y2K information with their citizens.
To get a dialogue started, the White House council plans to promote "Y2K Community Conversations" this summer, starting in Hartford, Green Bay, Wis., the Hampton Roads region of Virginia and other areas.
"The goal of the campaign is not to be cheerleaders or to present a false picture of security," Koskinen said. The idea, he said, is to discuss "what the risks are and what preparations are appropriate for each community."
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Bennett's partner on the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, fears con artists will use Y2K as a way to lure people into fraudulent investment schemes or trick people into disclosing bank account numbers.
Although only a few cases have been reported, Y2K scams usually involve a con artist calling potential victims and asking for a credit card number or bank account information, claiming the information is needed to aid Y2K compliance work or to protect the victim's bank account from a computer malfunction.
Last week, Dodd sent letters to federal regulatory and law enforcement agencies urging them to warn consumers about Y2K scams. "While we know that some computer systems will be affected by the Y2K bug, sadly the one thing we know won't stop is scam artists looking to make a quick buck," Dodd said.
A survey of private health care companies that hold Medicare managed-care contracts found that only 22 percent of them are ready for Y2K. But nearly two-thirds of those not ready reported that all of their computer systems would be fixed by Dec. 31.
The survey was conducted by the inspector general of the Health and Human Services Department during January and February.
Managed-care companies, typically health maintenance organizations, appear especially vulnerable to the Year 2000 problem because of the variety of computer business systems they operate. The Y2K problem stems from the use of two-digit date fields in many systems, leading experts to worry that computers will incorrectly interpret "00" not as 2000 but as 1900 when the calendar changes, producing errors or other electronic malfunctions.
The IG survey found that 68 percent of the Medicare managed-care contractors reported that they were unsure of the Y2K readiness of the doctors, hospitals, home health agencies and other providers in their health care networks.
"The results of this survey are troubling," said Nancy-Ann Min DeParle, who heads the federal agency in charge of Medicare, in a letter accompanying the IG report.
This summer, DeParle will send independent consultants to managed-care companies to assess their Y2K readiness, aides said.