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"The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" It’s not Chicken Little, but technology experts warn companies that do not address year 2000 (Y2K) computer problems now may face equipment malfunctions, lost records, cash flow crises, and worse come Jan. 1, 2000. The millennium may be 11 months away, but correcting the coding omissions that the so-called Millennium Bug cause may make the days go by lightning-fast, according to some prognosticators.
Y2K problems result from a quick fix first used years ago when computer memory storage was more expensive and less efficient. To save valuable processing space, programmers used two-digit instead of four-digit date codes, making 1999 into 99 for example. With no instructions to recognize a 00 date, computers may miscalculate or even crash after midnight on Jan. 1, 2000.
The bug affects any program that relies on date differences, such as age or time period calculations. Financial packages are particularly vulnerable, but any system is at risk. The problem also involves software that tells computers how to perform their processing.
With technology so pervasive, Y2K may impact every aspect of private duty operations, from patient financial records and ventilators, to office security, payroll and scheduling systems.
Fortunately, most systems can be fixed, but doing so may require lots of investigative legwork and time of already harried programmers and technicians. You can outwit the Millennium Bug, though, by taking the following actions:
• Do it now.
"Don’t wait until the middle of the year. Make it a New Year’s resolution! The people solving the problem already have a backlog, and it may take some time to find some manufacturers," advises Jeff Bonham, MBA, vice president of Medicare Training and Consulting, a consulting firm in Herron, IL.
• Develop an action plan.
If no one in your organization is formally responsible for information systems, then assign responsibility for developing a companywide action plan to the person with the most computer-related credentials, Bonham recommends.
"You need to look at every single process and every company that you’re doing business with."
The plan should include a system-by-system inventory that identifies vendors and manufacturers, lists steps to correct the problem, and outlines contingency actions in the event of a malfunction.
The level of effort involved in such an undertaking depends on the number of systems your company operates, whether they are networked or standalone, as well as the number of external relationships you have, ranging from banking to equipment suppliers, according to Bonham.
If the task is too time-consuming or overwhelming, then consider using an outside company. Choose a firm that is qualified and insured to do Y2K remediation, Bonham recommends. This may offer you an extra level of liability protection in the event of any system failures. (Some experts predict a spate of Y2K-related litigation. See Private Duty Homecare, December 1998, p. 166.) Vendors that support your accounting or clinical packages may offer Y2K remediation services for your entire operation, not just their own software.
Providers that choose to develop an action plan internally can download programs that will identify Y2K glitches. (See Internet resources, above.)
• Assess risk.
Once you’ve identified the depth of your Y2K problem, you should assess risk and prioritize remediation efforts, Bonham advises. For example, the crash of a payer’s system affecting your cash flow would be critical, whereas having the right date on the VCR you use for staff training would be a lower priority.
Correcting Y2K problems can be free and simple, or expensive and complex. Beginning with the high priority items, develop a plan to fix the glitch and do without it in the event of a malfunction, Bonham recommends. Most home care companies are cash-poor to begin with, so forgoing payments from third-party payers would wreak havoc. Write a letter to all of the payers you have contracts with asking where their own remediation efforts stand.
"You can’t do anything about a payer source, but you can plan for a short fall," he says.
Medicare-certified providers that have at least 25,000 annual visits should consider the agency’s periodic interim payment (PIP) program. It was to be phased out in 1999, but the Health Care Financing Administration delayed that action, Bonham says.
Read the fine print on contracts and seek representation from equipment vendors and manufacturers that their product is Y2K compliant. Vendors should facilitate remediation efforts on newer systems, but you may have to go directly to manufacturers for older products, Bonham advises.
Some systems may truncate patient records at the strike of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. Prepare for this catastrophic event today by maintaining a manual patient list that includes key information, Bonham suggests.
And don’t forget system interfaces. For example, those home-grown private duty scheduling and payroll databases may work fine on their own, but depending on how they interface with purchased accounting packages, they may still have problems, Bonham advises.
Despite the predicted dire consequences and tedious remediation involved, the Y2K problem is manageable. "Just being aware is half the battle, but you have to take actions," he says.
• Jeff Bonham, vice president, Medicare Training and Consulting, 4 Dogwood Lane, Herron, IL 62948. Telephone: (618) 988-8180.