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Your Military Health System: Ready for Y2K

By Dr. Sue Bailey
National Guard Bureau

WASHINGTON, Dec. 20, 1999 – Defense Leaders is a feature of the American Forces Press Service. It provides senior DoD leaders with an opportunity to speak directly to military service members, their families and DoD civilians on subjects of current interest.

SIDEBAR: The Y2K date processing problem stems from the historical and widespread use throughout the computer and information systems industry of 2-digit rather than 4-digit numbers to represent the year in software and hardware. This problem also affects most machines and equipment that use built-in computer chip programs. For example, many software programs and computer chips record the year 1998 as "98." This programming convention was used in the 1950s to save space, which at the time was expensive and limited. Programmers around the world continued to use this shorthand well into the '60s and '70s, not anticipating these same computer systems would be adapted and re-adapted and remain in use at the turn of the century. On January 1, 2000, the year field in these systems will roll over to '00,' which computers may read as 1900 instead of 2000. This may cause errors or malfunctions – or possibly, do nothing. And, while the problem is the same, the solution is different for every affected program and piece of equipment.

The Military Health System (MHS) is among the most technically sophisticated healthcare systems in the world. Consequently, our preparations for Y2K have been among the most technically challenging in the healthcare industry.

Our Y2K objective is to ensure continuous world class healthcare to our 8 million beneficiaries and maintain medical readiness on and after January 1, 2000. Patient safety is our top priority.

Since 1996, a dedicated team of experts drawn from each of the three services and Department of Defense (DoD) staff has developed and put into action a comprehensive program to address Y2K-affected systems.

Thanks to the team's superb partnership, thoroughness and hard work, the MHS is well-prepared for the turn of the century. All mission critical and non-mission critical systems have been certified compliant, and our systems and equipment have been independently tested and validated.

As a precaution, we and our healthcare partners have backup plans in place to address any issues or problems that may arise, and we have established a clearinghouse from which we can immediately share information systemwide.

As a result, I can confidently assure you that you and your family will continue to receive the high quality care you have come to expect from your MHS on and after New Year's Day.

Because much has been written and discussed about the Y2K "bug," I would like to describe the steps we have taken to update the systems important to your healthcare and provide you with some common sense, precautionary tips.

Our Key Areas of Focus

MHS Y2K preparation efforts have focused on the following key areas: pharmacy, healthcare information systems, TRICARE contractors' systems, biomedical devices, and medical facilities. Medical devices and lab equipment also have undergone special scrutiny to ensure safety and reliability.

Pharmacy System

Since December, 100 percent of MTF pharmacies have been certified Y2K compliant, which means that these pharmacies should continue to provide uninterrupted service through the millennium date change. Merck-Medco, our National Mail Order Pharmacy (NMOP) contractor, and civilian pharmacy contractors are rigorously testing their systems and assure us that their systems are Y2K compliant.

The pharmaceutical network is set up so that local pharmacists will have access to a substantial supply of pharmaceuticals. If we all continue to fill prescriptions as usual, we will all be able to get the medicines we need when we need them. Hoarding, however, could cause shortages that could create a problem we otherwise would not have had.

  • What You Can Do: Continue to fill prescriptions as usual. If you use an MTF or civilian pharmacy, refill 5-7 days before your medicine runs out. If you use the NMOP, place your order 20-25 days before your medicine runs out. If you have any questions about the supply of your specific medications, speak with your pharmacist.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors have long had emergency response plans in place and have had extensive past experience with disruptions such as severe weather and transportation problems.

Healthcare Information Systems

In December 1998, all systems that have direct impact on patient care and medical readiness, such as clinical information systems and immunization tracking systems, were certified Y2K compliant. Since then, our Y2K team has conducted assessments, called end-to-end testing, to make sure these systems work together under realistic Y2K changeover conditions. These test transactions were completed with a final success rate of 100 percent.

TRICARE Network Systems and DEERS

While the MHS is responsible for ensuring that MTFs are Y2K compliant, individual doctors' offices, civilian hospitals and other providers in our TRICARE networks are responsible for ensuring their own Y2K compliance. We have been working closely with our TRICARE contractors to ensure they have taken the appropriate measures to protect their systems.

  • What You Can Do: If you use the services of a civilian hospital, physician or pharmacy, ask them what they have done to become Y2K compliant and when they expect to be fully compliant.

While most of your personal medical records such as doctor's notes and medical test results are kept in "paper copy" format, your TRICARE enrollment and eligibility history is stored electronically in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). DEERS also maintains immunization records for active duty service members. DEERS was certified Y2K compliant in March and has undergone further testing to ensure that all systems used for patient care will continue to work together.

  • What You Can Do : Check your family members anniversary date for enrollment in TRICARE. Re-enrollment is now automatic in all regions, but check the date to ensure your family remains enrolled.

Make certain that your correct address is in the DEERS database. You can update your address by going to the TRICARE web site at www.tricare.osd.mil. Click on "TRICARE Beneficiaries," then click on DEERS address change under the "Resources" subheading.

Biomedical Devices

MHS's tri-service team of biomedical technicians partnered with other government experts to inventory and assess over 350,000 pieces of equipment used worldwide, from blood pressure cuffs to MRIs. All biomedical devices used within MHS facilities either have been certified Y2K compliant or are being replaced with compliant equipment.

  • What You Can Do: If at home you have biomedical equipment such as inhalation therapy nebulizers or infusion pumps, contact the manufacturer directly or access their web site to get information on how to make your equipment compliant.

Facilities

DoD's vast and extraordinary medical system -- from hospitals and clinics to preventive medicine units and research institutions -- includes more than 500 facilities worldwide. Facility elevators, heating/AC, and fire suppression systems have been certified Y2K compliant or are being replaced. Equipment such as backup generators is being re-checked for readiness in case potential problems arise, such as commercial power outages or disruptions in public telephone service.

Overseas

Finally, as part of our effort to ensure quality healthcare to deployed personnel and their families, military medical departments and overseas MTF commanders are identifying and assessing the Y2K readiness of host-nation referral partners and developing a Y2K plan of action for assuring uninterrupted healthcare.

Our Ace in the Hole

The DoD, each of the military services and the MHS are world-renown for their unparalleled ability to deal with the unexpected and to implement contingency plans. Our unique ability to meet the Y2K challenge is no different. In the event of possible Y2K interruptions, whether they originate in our systems or are beyond our realm of control, we will implement our comprehensive contingency and continuity of operations plans to immediately address the situation and identify remedies.

Recently, the MHS Transition Operations Center (TOC) was established. This tri-service ops center is staffed by an expert action team and now operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The team will track the dawn of the new millennium as the date change moves across the world's time zones. Should a Y2K problem arise in the first locations, such as Guam, the TOC will be able to take appropriate action in later zones ahead of the date change. MTFs will report any Y2K difficulties via a toll-free telephone line. The action team will assess the issues and as appropriate communicate findings throughout the MHS and among our TRICARE Network Partners to ensure a rapid, proper response.

Quality Care Will Be There

As we get closer to January 1, we can all expect to be bombarded with advice and predictions from many sources. If at any time you have questions about Y2K, I strongly encourage you to talk directly with your provider, your MTF commander or visit the MHS Y2K web site.

At its core, the MHS is about dedicated health professionals providing quality care to you, our beneficiary. Thanks to the outstanding efforts of our Y2K team and partners, no computer glitch will prevent us from doing that. So, as you toast in the new century and the new millennium, rest assured that quality care will be there when and where you need it.

Contact Author

Related Sites:
MHS Y2K web site
DoD 'Confronting Y2K' web site


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