Most states lag in computers set for 2000 GAO study warns of delays in key benefit programs

November 27, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Most states are behind schedule in renovating their computers for the year 2000 and, as a result, it is likely that benefit payments will be delayed or services interrupted for some people who receive welfare, Medicaid, food stamps or other types of assistance, federal and state officials say.

State employees are working feverishly to fix the problem and draft contingency plans in case their computers are not ready by Jan. 1, 2000. But some states are lagging, and states that have repaired computers for one program are often behind schedule in fixing computers for other social programs.

Federal officials say the problems could begin as early as January 1999 in some programs such as unemployment insurance. People filing claims for jobless benefits typically have a year to draw all the checks to which they are entitled.

The last day of this "benefit year" is recorded when an application is received. So computers must be able to handle dates with the year 2000, starting in January 1999.

Many federal benefit programs are administered at the county level, and county officials will have to deal with the consequences if payments are late.

The year 2000 problem arises because early computer programmers often used a two-digit format to express the year.

In such computer programs, 2000 is often indistinguishable from 1900. If the problem is not corrected, experts say, computers could produce inaccurate data or shut down.

A recent survey of states by the General Accounting Office found that many were behind schedule in renovating their computer systems.

Only a third of the 421 computer systems used for seven major health, welfare and nutrition programs were ready for 2000.

"The compliance rate ranged from only 16 percent of the Medicaid systems to about half of the child care and child welfare systems," the accounting office said.

Failure to make the necessary repairs "could result in billions of dollars in benefit payments not being delivered," the report said.

In addition, it said, states may have difficulty determining eligibility of new applicants, and people already on the rolls may re- ceive late payments or underpayments.

Joel C. Willemssen, who supervises GAO's office on computer operations of civilian agencies, called the survey results "fairly discouraging."

The federal government had set September 1998 as the target date for computer systems to be renovated. That date would have allowed time to test the performance of computers and to correct software errors.

"Testing is 60 to 70 percent of the job of getting ready for the year 2000," said Wendy Rayner, chief information officer of New Jersey.

Pub Date: 11/27/98

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