Virtually every major federal agency has conducted "outreach activities" to notify private-sector companies and their trade associations about potential Year 2000 computer problems. But one of the largest efforts in the government has not produced encouraging results.

The Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA), which oversees the Medicare program, sent letters this year to more than 1.1 million hospitals, doctors, laboratories, medical suppliers, nursing homes and other health care providers. The agency sponsored Y2K conferences and set up a toll-free hot line to provide advice on how to fix computer systems at risk of malfunctioning because they interpret the year code "00" as 1900 instead of 2000.

HCFA uses about 70 contractor systems, many operated by insurance companies, to pay claims submitted electronically by hospitals, doctors, managed-care plans and others. As the nation's largest health insurer--expected to pay $288 billion in benefits next year--HCFA does not want to be swamped in paper claims next year or face delays in making payments because doctors and other health care providers cannot successfully submit electronic claims.

Despite HCFA's efforts to alert the health care industry to Y2K glitches, the General Accounting Office (GAO) has estimated that only 2 percent of the approximately 10,000 providers invited to HCFA-sponsored Y2K conferences attended such sessions. Less than 1 percent of Medicare providers have called the HCFA hot line.

HCFA also directed its contractors to run Y2K tests within the health care community, but the GAO found the tests were limited and those that were conducted turned up problems in data exchanges between computer systems.

In one case, a Medicare contractor ran tests with 434 doctors and other practitioners and encountered problems with 28 percent of their claims. About 2 percent involved "critical failures" that produced dates of 1900 or 1901. When HCFA's computers receive claims with those dates, the system won't allow them, kicking them back with instructions to resubmit.

The GAO findings, dated July 28, were released last week by the House Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.). The GAO followed up the report with a briefing for Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which urged HCFA to conduct more comprehensive Y2K tests.

"The work remaining to provide assurance that the vast array of information systems will be fully Y2K compliant well exceeds the time available," Grassley said in a letter to HCFA.

HCFA deputy administrator Michael Hash said Medicare would be ready to pay claims Jan. 1, but said many "health care providers do not seem to understand the urgency and importance of Y2K readiness."

Surveys That Don't Tell the Story

Industry surveys also have not helped get a handle on the scope of potential Y2K problems in the health care industry.

In its report to the House Commerce Committee, the GAO said surveys conducted by trade associations and other groups were based on low response rates that provided insufficient information to assess the health care industry's Y2K readiness.

Privately, government officials fear that at least one-third of doctors, hospitals, labs and other health care providers in the Medicare program may wait to see if their computers malfunction before trying to make Y2K fixes. "We don't know where they are at, what they're doing or if they are aware of Y2K," one official said.

At a news conference last week, the White House's Y2K troubleshooter, John A. Koskinen, said the health care sector was a "diffuse industry that's difficult for us at the federal level to reach out to on an individual, institution-by- institution basis. . . . Our problem here in many ways is the lack of data."

Chemical Industry's Readiness Questioned

Sens. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) called on the White House yesterday to convene a special summit to assess the Y2K readiness of the nation's chemical industry.

"The Y2K bug has the potential to disrupt the operation, transport, maintenance and control activities at chemical facilities," the senators said in a statement. Bennett chairs and Dodd serves as vice chair of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem.

A spokesman for Koskinen said, "We are currently looking at the chemical sector and other areas to see how we can best collect more information and have a positive impact on activity within the industry."

On the Web: Bean Bag Bugs and Y2K Wit

A quick Web search with the Yahoo search engine turned up 905 Y2K products available at 198 stores that advertise or do business online. The items for sale range from computer system upgrades to countdown clocks and "bean bag bugs."

For a monthly contest on the stupidest things said about Y2K, check out on the Web, and if you need some "Official Y2K Cash" for use after Dec. 31, try They've got a roll of toilet paper for you, emblazoned with "Y2K Cash" in green ink.