Health reform, the new Y2K

Remember Y2K? That was the prediction, in the late 1990s, that aging computer programs would be unable to function after Dec. 31, 1999, and social chaos would result when these systems failed. The current anxiety about health care reform — or “government takeover” as the Republicans insist on calling it — has a good deal in common with that earlier panic.

Y2K, short for “Year 2000,” was a code name for concerns about the fact that programmers traditionally used only two bytes to represent the year in a date, e.g. 85 for the year 1985. Programmers in the ’60s and ’70s hadn’t expected that their programs would still be in use three and four decades later, when 1999 rolled over to 2000. Most of these “legacy” programs had been cooked up as needed, with little thought for the long term. But as long as the programs continued to work, it was cost-effective for large organizations to keep using them.

By the late ’90s it was feared that the year 2000, or 00, would be the moment at which they all, or a critical mass of them, stopped working forever. Climate control systems would fail, making most city buildings uninhabitable. Avionics would stop working, and transportation would come to a screeching halt. Electricity would stop flowing, phone lines would go dead. People’s life savings would become permanently inaccessible as the financial record-keeping system crashed. Anything could happen. Continue reading “Health reform, the new Y2K”