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Senate looks at bug and business

The Senate Y2K hearing examines the business sector's ability to "survive" the date change, with a focus on the food and drug industries.

Before the congressional committee responsible for addressing the Year 2000 technology glitch, a health care worker today recommended that insurance companies provide a one-time 90-day supply of drugs to needy patients at the end of 1999.

The Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem's final hearing of this Congressional session examined the business sector's ability to "survive" the century date change, with a detailed focus on the food and pharmaceutical industries.

At the hearing, nurse and Y2K consultant Laurene West told the committee that requiring insurance companies to provide such 90-day supplies would at least ensure that needy patients have access to medications even if the pharmaceutical industry suffers interruptions from the Year 2000 computer problem, according to committee staffers.

"The pharmaceutical industry includes a large international component. For example, diabetics can live long and healthy lives with the help of regular doses of insulin, a substance mainly produced in Denmark," committee vice chair Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) said in his opening remarks.

"If Denmark's insulin production is affected by the Y2K bug or any other disaster, the thousands of Americans that depend on this drug to control their diabetes will find themselves in grave danger," he said.

He highlighted insulin because, he said, it embodies the interdependent nature of the world in terms of business and economies, as well as health and social welfare.

As a way to underscore the importance of Y2K compliance throughout the business world, the committee requested that technology consulting firm Gartner Group attend the hearing and release some of its latest research on Y2K readiness in the small and big business sectors.

Based on research conducted by Gartner, 30 to 50 percent of all companies world wide will experience at least one mission critical failure due to the Year 2000 technology problem. About 15 percent of U.S. companies will experience at least one mission critical failure and 10 percent of mission critical failures will last three days, Lou Marcoccio, a research director at the firm, told the committee.

The research was conducted in the third quarter of 1998. Gartner estimates that 11 percent of commercial software will still be noncompliant even after the century date change.

During his testimony before the committee, Marcoccio presented the committee with a number of recommendations the federal government could take to help quell the effects of the Year 2000 bug in the United States and elsewhere.

Some of those recommendations included: assigning a single U.S. agency, such as the Global Risk Management Agency, to manage and coordinate the global impact of Year 2000 problems in the United States; adapting contingency plans to reflect Y2K failures happening over a wide spread time frame rather than a single day or week; focusing on managing global dependencies and risks, not just IT systems within agencies and legislation to support Y2K compliance.

The Year 2000 bug originated in the design of the first computer programs. Those programs, which remain integrated into a large percentage of computerized equipment used today, register each year using a simple two-digit number. Therefore, when "00" rolls around on January 1, 2000, experts worry that many computers will interpret the date as 1900--causing either delays, confused data, or complete breakdown.

Dodd and his colleagues also took the time to look back on the seven prior hearings the committee has held since its inception in April. Among them, the committee has examined the impact of Y2K on electricity grids, healthcare, financial markets, telecommunications, emergency services, pensions and mutual funds, and, today, small and large businesses.

Most companies and regular civilians are aware of their civic duties, said Dodd, "and have volunteered to tell the Y2K story, recognizing that their experiences will be useful to others. But there are other companies and industries that willfully and knowingly chose not to cooperate with our efforts. In many cases, these are companies whose products are essential for the day-to-day existence of the average American."

In fact, during her statement, West said she was astonished at how many doctors and hospitals in her field consider the bug simply an IT problem, rather than a business management issue.

The next hearing is scheduled for January, when Congress returns from recess, committee staffers said.

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