HCFA is 'fully focused' on year 2000 repairs, HHS IT chief says

After a poor start on year 2000 work and with much still to be done, the Health Care
Financing Administration acknowledges that it is unlikely that all HCFA systems will be
ready in time.


Despite the setbacks, HCFA is making progress, said Neil J. Stillman, deputy assistant
secretary for IRM at the Health and Human Services Department.


The late start and the complexity of HCFA’s problem has made the task more
difficult, he said, but added, “I think we’re optimistic that we’re going
to get most of the way there.”


HCFA’s implementation plan shows an increasing number of systems will be ready in
the coming months, Stillman said at the recent Federation of Government Information
Processing Councils’ Acquisition Management Conference in Falls Church, Va. The
agency will roll out the corrected systems in groups.


But Joel Willemssen, director of civil agencies information systems accounting for the
General Accounting Office’s Information Management Division, questioned the wisdom of
multiple simultaneous systems implementations.


“The ramp-up we wouldn’t necessarily view as a good point,” he said.


HCFA’s job is tough because it must fix not only its systems but ensure the
readiness of systems run by 70 contractors and used by more than 900,000 providers. The
Medicare system, which processes nearly 17 million transactions a day and 1 billion claims
each year, depends on a range of external systems including those run by state Medicaid
programs.


“When an agency gets fully focused, it’s amazing. You can turn battleships
around,” said John Callahan, HHS’ chief information officer and the assistant
secretary for management and budget.


HCFA and HHS are now clearly focused on 2000 readiness, Callahan said. HCFA has hired a
“first-rate CIO,” Gary G. Christoph, director of HCFA’s Office of
Information Services, he said.


To work on preparing its systems, HCFA also will postpone implementing some provisions
of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 [GCN, Aug. 24, 1998, Page 68]. The agency also is pressuring its
contractors to make progress on their systems fixes, Callahan said.


“A good deal of work has been done,” he said.


Congress has helped by providing extra funding, Callahan said. HHS has received funding
from the $3.25 billion year 2000 emergency fund created by Congress as part of the fiscal
1999 omnibus appropriations bill.


Another help, he said, has been HHS’ efforts to build up its systems staff. The
department rehired retired federal employees to help fix systems.


‘This may be unlike anything we’ve ever dealt with before,” he said.
“People know how to manage catastrophic events,” but year 2000 problems could be
the equivalent of 10 hurricanes at once, he said. 

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