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Many cautious but confident date will roll over with few problems

State agencies, utilities, health care facilities wrapping up Y2K tests

State agencies, utility companies and health care facilities are prepping for the Y2K bug.

Computer systems in state agencies are Y2K compliant, including Mississippi’s two largest agencies – the State Tax Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services. About $29 million was allocated for the Year 2000 Readiness Project, established by the Legislature about two years ago, said Teresa Karnes, state coordinator for the Y2K program.

The rest of the country is not as prepared. According to the latest President’s Council report, only 55% of small counties with less than 10,000 people had Y2K plans in place.

The Y2K problem began decades ago when programmers saved space where possible by storing the absolute minimum data necessary for business functions because of the limited memory and storage space in early computers. One area they saved space in was the date, where the two last digits represented years. It’s a system that works until it rolls over to the year 2000 and is recognized by the computer as 1900.

If cloning were allowed, Cliff King and Hank Walker might duplicate themselves. Two years ago, King and Walker anticipated the Y2K “rush for readiness” and started Millennium Plus in a spare room at King’s house. Walker, who had 20 years of experience in computer programming, and King, who recently retired from the military, had discussed the Year 2000 computer problem, saw a need in the business community and decided to devote a business solely to being a Year 2000 solution provider.

“We don’t sell computers, we don’t sell software, we don’t install networks, we don’t run cable, and we don’t teach software training classes,” said King, president. “We are dedicated to providing solutions for Y2K problems. We’ve got our focus, and it’s served us well.”

The Windows NT operating system has more than four million lines of code, where thousands of programmers with slightly different styles were involved in creating it, he said

“What will fix your word processor will not fix your spreadsheet or accounting system or inventory database,” he said. “And it’s not going to be over with in the Year 2000. You’ll still see problems with month-end reports, quarter-end reports, and until the end of 2001 before it gets cleaned up.”

Other firms focused on not tackling Y2K problems. Ridgeland-based Business Communications Inc. made the decision early on to refer Y2K concerns to other businesses.

“Frankly, we didn’t want the headaches,” said CEO Tony Bailey. “Getting involved with Y2K would take us away from our primary focus and our mission statement.”

In what computer techies referred to as a dress rehearsal for the new millennium, most businesses hummed through 9/9/99 without a blip on the computer screen. As of Sept. 30, 99.6% of all federally-insured financial institutions completed testing of critical systems for Year 2000 readiness, according to the President’s Council on Year 2000 Conversion.

Most computers read 9999 as a regular number, despite fear that four nines would lock up many information systems. Industry analysts were concerned that older models that might read 9999 as a code to shut down. At one time, computer programmers commonly used the date as an expiration date for archived data. But when Asian markets opened and closed, nothing out of the ordinary happened. According to Reuters News Service, the U.S. State Department “pronounced the ‘nines’ blip-free as far as 167 U.S. embassies and consulates were aware.”

Industry insiders viewed the ubiquitous passing of Sept. 9 as a good sign for Jan. 1, 2000. Others said it was not a valid indicator.

“The 9999 number does not really have anything to do with the Year 2000 problem,” said Walker. “The two are really not related. People might get a false sense of security. This 9999 thing was probably overblown as a precursor to the Year 2000.”

Vital industries, including finance, power, transportation, telecommunications, and oil and gas are expected to make a successful transition to the new century, said analyst John Koskinen.

Entergy, which has been running tests for months, considered 9/9/99 a dress rehearsal. The drill also utilized the backup voice communications systems to run the company’s high-voltage transmission system under a simulated loss of one or more primary voice or data communications systems and to quickly assemble Entergy’s Y2K contingency response plans under simulated conditions.

“It confirmed that our systems and employees are ready for Y2K, and that if any unexpected problems do come up in crucial areas, we’re prepared to deal with them quickly and effectively,” said Johnny Ervin, vice president of customer service support for Entergy.

When BellSouth, a $24-billion communications services company, conducted a drill of its Year 2000 contingency plans from Sept. 8 to Sept. 11, the network and systems were unaffected.

Phil Hardwick, spokesperson for Mississippi Valley Gas, said several tests have been conducted on its computer system and no problems have been found.

Mary Patterson of the Mississippi Hospital Association said the long-range impact of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 won’t be clear “until we get past the year 2000 and implement a whole new payment system. Many pieces are on hold because of potential problems associated with Y2K.”

Additional costs in anticipation of Y2K problems have financially burdened health care facilities, said Jimmy Blessitt, administrator of South Sunflower County Hospital in Indianola.

“Unless health care providers buy up and horde supplies in anticipation of Y2K problems – creating a false shortage of goods – the larger potential for problems with health care delivery lies a few months down the road,” Blessitt said. “Many of our supplies are manufactured overseas in relatively underdeveloped nations. It has been said that many of these nations are doing very little to address the Y2K problem. Should stoppages in the manufacturing or transportation of goods in these countries occur, it would produce shortages of supplies for the U.S. health care system in late winter or early spring. If we do not have the supplies needed to provide care, there is little we can do until the problems are resolved. It is probably the most likely situation that could cause severe problems with the delivery of hospital care to our population.”

Madison County Medical Center in Canton asked for a $1.4-million loan from Merchants and Farmers Bank in February to repair Y2K-related problems partially attributed to delays in federal reimbursement. In FY 1998, the hospital’s net operating loss was $1.9 million after a “significant write-off” for bad debt. The hospital has a bad debt reserve of close to $2 million.

As of Oct. 1, only half of the nation’s 2,700 911-call centers, mostly run by local governments, were Y2K compliant.

Only 40% of health care providers are Y2K ready, according to data from the RX Solutions Institute.

One third of Medicare fee-for-service providers did not have Y2K ready billing and medical records systems, read an October report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Walker. “And it won’t be over on Jan. 1. Remember, 2000 is a leap year.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or mbj@msbusiness.com.


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