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Y2K fears bug health industry
Bennett upset over lack of data

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Bennett told Congress Thursday that no one really knows how many hospitals, doctors' offices or medical devices are endangered by the year 2000 computer bug.

The Utah Republican complained that most of those who do know about the condition of individual products and facilities have declined to provide data -- which gives him a bad feeling with the millennium date change just 204 days away.For example, he told the Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, which he chairs, that only 10 percent of the doctors who belong to the American Medical Society chose to respond to surveys about the Y2K readiness of their offices.

"That is not a scientifically accurate survey. These are people who are willing to respond. Our experience on the committee is that people who are willing to respond are the ones in good shape," and non-responders have problems, he said.

"We simply have too many unknowns," Bennett complained.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., also complained that lack of response to similar surveys means "the Y2K readiness of 69 percent of the rural hospitals in the United States is not known. Likewise, the Y2K readiness of 77 percent of urban hospitals is also in question." So is readiness of 79 percent of nursing homes.

He agreed with Bennett that "the lack of response is clearly a symptom of not being prepared. With 204 days left, tolerating the unknown elements in health care is a dangerous policy."

Dodd also noted that among the 2,000 hospitals that did respond to a recent survey -- which are likely the most prepared -- 40 percent still said they expect to enter the new year with at least some equipment that is not Y2K compliant.

Also, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported to the committee that it searched and reviewed information about 35,446 different medical devices on the market, and found "about 4,445 or 12.5 percent are considered non-compliant by the manufacturer." Much of that information had not been reported voluntarily to the government.

Two witnesses from Utah warned that their experiences show that the Y2K threat is real and dangerous for the health care industry.

Mark Stoddard of Nephi, president of Rural Health Management Corp., which operates four rural hospitals in Utah, said a review revealed some of its facilities must replace equipment ranging from C.T. scanners and patient and cardiac monitoring equipment to alarm systems and air conditioning controls.

He noted that replacing a C.T. scanner "can take a rural hospital's entire capital budget for several years" -- and he worries that smaller, rural hospitals will be less able than larger urban facilities to cope.

He said he also worries that Y2K might disrupt the delivery of key supplies, so his company has ordered facilities to "increase inventories of critical items by as much as 50 percent to keep the hospital functioning. . . . This includes increasing our inventory of fuel oil so we can run the emergency generator for several days if needed."

Dr. Philip L. Roberts of Sandy, with the Utah Physicians Care Center, said he's concerned enough about the reliability of high-tech equipment and the basic utilities needed to operate them that he says doctors should try to avoid most elective surgery and hospitalization around the date change.

"We should try and schedule patients that have serious medical problems requiring hospitalization for surgery or other procedures either prior to or after this period," he said.

The Y2K problem comes because older computer programming contained only two digits for a four-digit years. So at the New Year, it would interpret "00" not as 2000 -- but as 1900. That may make systems either crash or misinterpret data.