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Take preventive steps now if you don't want your practice to catch the Y2K bug in its interactions with Medicare.

Fam Pract Manag. 1999;6(5):17

Y2K. You've heard the horror stories. But have you really stopped to think about how Y2K will affect your practice and its involvement with Medicare? If not, now's the time to start.

Preparing for Y2K has already begun to affect Medicare claims processing. On April 5, Medicare carriers began returning claims as “unprocessable” if they didn't have Y2K-compliant dates. In other words, the date fields (such as the patient's date of birth and the date of service) on claims that you or your billing company submit must now include eight digits (e.g., 04/05/1999) to accommodate the century as well as the year. If you're still submitting claims with six-digit date fields (e.g., 04/05/99), your Medicare claims will be returned unprocessed and unpaid.

Also, because of the need to update and test its systems, HCFA may have to delay implementation of some aspects of the Medicare program. For example, HCFA may delay the annual payment update to the Medicare fee schedule and continue to pay you at the 1999 rate for services you provide early in 2000. (That's assuming you get paid of course!)

Right now, HCFA continues to assure physicians that it will keep paying claims and that it will do everything to ensure that its systems will function properly in January. However, any glitches along the way — either in your system, your billing company's system, your Medicare carrier's system or HCFA's systems — could disrupt your claims payment. To prepare your practice, have extra financial resources or a line of credit available to handle delays in claims payment, especially if Medicare plays a significant part in your practice's cash flow.

What you can do

To avoid potential Y2K pitfalls, HCFA has suggested that physicians take these steps:

  • Become aware of how the Y2K bug might affect your practice. Anything that requires a microchip or a date may be affected (see “A Y2K readiness checklist”). List the at-risk aspects of your practice and identify which are “mission critical” (i.e., those you can't function without).

  • Assess the readiness of everything on your list by contacting your hardware and software vendors as well as your maintenance and service contractors.

  • Update or replace problematic systems and software programs you decide are critical to your ability to do business.

  • Test your existing and newly purchased systems and software; don't assume anything is Y2K ready just because someone says so. (For tips on testing your computer systems, see “Do You Have a Year 2000 Problem?” September 1998.)

  • Develop business contingency plans in the event that something goes wrong; identify the events that would cause the greatest problems for your patients and your practice.

A Y2K readiness checklist

Here's a checklist (prepared by HCFA) of systems, equipment and items of information that your practice should assess for their Y2K readiness. HCFA cautions that this list is not intended to be all-inclusive; it should be used with other diagnostic and reference tools to help you prepare for 2000.

  • Bank debit/credit cards' expiration dates

  • Banking interface

  • Building access cards

  • Claims forms and other forms

  • Clocks

  • Computer hardware

  • Computer software

  • Custom applications

  • Diagnostic equipment

  • Elevators

  • Fire alarm

  • Insurance/pharmacy coverage dates

  • Membership cards

  • Medical devices

  • Monitoring equipment

  • Smoke alarm

  • Telephone system

  • Spreadsheets

  • Treatment equipment

  • Safety vaults

Source: HCFA. Sample Provider Y2K Readiness Checklist. Available at: Accessed April 1, 1999.

For more information on preparing for Y2K, review the Academy's publication “Family Physicians and the Year 2000: Preventive Medicine for the Millennium Bug.” It offers compliance tips, resources, sample letters for verifying compliance and a 10-step compliance plan for your practice. AAFP members can receive a free copy by calling the AAFP Order Department at 800-944-0000 and requesting item #W710. It's also available online at

If you're sick of hearing about Y2K and still haven't done a thing to prepare, it's time to take a dose of medicine and make sure your practice is ready. The time you waste today in procrastination may cost you money in January.

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Copyright © 1999 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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