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More large employers are developing internal computer networks that use microsized versions of the World Wide Web to inform employees about benefits or allow them to sign up for health insurance, a new survey indicates.

In fact, the majority of employers with at least 1,000 employees are using Intranet technology in human resource applications or plan to in the next year, according to the survey of 323 companies that will be released this month by Bethesda, Md.-based Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

Intranet computer applications connect users within a single site or company, unlike the Internet, which ties together unrelated users worldwide. Employers set up local web sites that may be accessed by employees more quickly and securely than if they contracted with large commercial on-line networks.

"Human resource organizations are rapidly moving to the Intranet," said Steve McCormick, virtual HR practice leader in Watson Wyatt's Washington office.

Twenty-seven percent of the respondents said they are already using an Intranet system for some business purpose. About one-third of that group is using the Intranet for either benefit information or enrollment, or both. The most common use appears to be delivery of information to employees, such as benefits handbooks, newsletters, and policy updates. And another 35% of that group said they plan to add these uses as their next new applications.

Most common uses for the Intranet among benefits professionals include thrift/savings/401(k) plan information, job postings, training and online job applications, the study said.

Eighty-four percent of companies without any Intranet capabilities said they will probably conduct benefits enrollment online soon, the survey found.

Not surprisingly, Watson Wyatt found that companies with more high-tech environments are more likely to venture into Web-based applications.

"We found that companies with a significant white-collar workforce with desk PC (personal computer) access are the ones who are jumping at this first," Mr. McCormick said. Companies with well-established Intranet programs include Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple Computer Inc., Washington-based MCI Communications Corp. and Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc., he said.

Watson Wyatt, which designs Web sites for Intranet systems, reports that almost half of the employers in the survey spent less than $50,000 to develop their internal Web sites, while a few with more advanced features spent more than $300,000.

To receive a copy of the study, "Web-based Applications-The Next Generation for HR," contact Steve McCormick, 202-626-9731. The study is free.

Help line brings award

BETHESDA, Md.-Several years ago the executives of Marriott International Inc. realized that employees were constantly asking managers questions that were difficult to answer.

A hotel housekeeper might ask where to turn for help because she has nowhere to leave her children during the day while she works. A bellhop might have similar concerns about an elderly father who can't remain home alone. A maintenance worker who struggles to speak English might need help understanding American immigration rules.

Last year, the company decided to help address employee concerns in a broad, comprehensive way by activating the Marriott Associate Resource Line, a 24-hour telephone hot line serving Marriott employees in all 50 states.

Previously, the line had been piloted in Florida in 1994 and Chicago and Texas in 1995.

The telephone line is staffed by 12 social workers who are able to counsel in 15 languages and who have the capacity to make referrals to translators fluent in 150 languages, said Donna Klein, director of Marriott work-life programs.

Ms. Klein and Marriott recently won a 1997 Business Enterprise Trust Award given by the Business Enterprise Trust, a national non-profit organization, for creating the hot line.

The line receives an amazing variety of calls, but the greatest portion, 40%, are from parents seeking child care, with an additional 10% of callers seeking elder care for relatives, Ms. Klein said. Twelve percent relate to miscellaneous issues, such as transportation questions, and 22% deal with legal and financial needs. About 15% of the callers speak a language other than English.

The line is open to all employees but is especially intended to meet the needs of Marriott's hourly workers, who constitute eight out of every 10 of the company's 185,000 employees.

But salaried management employees do use the benefit, too, Ms. Klein said, calling for referrals to nannies and housekeepers, schools for their children or help in relocation generally.

There are no limits on what kinds of counseling can be provided, and the social workers classify each call into one of 400 intake categories. "Our intent is to help them with whatever kind of help they need," she said. A comprehensive database of referral sources, compiled by an outside social service contractor, is available to each counselor.

The line costs about $1 million a year to operate but will yield an estimated return of at least four times that in higher retention of employees and reduced absenteeism and tardiness, she said.


CHICAGO-The YMCA, which covers more than 6,000 employees and dependents nationwide in a managed care program, has added a prescription benefit plan Jan. 1 that offers a choice between mail-order prescriptions and retail drug cards.

"We're looking to save about $300,000 (per year) over the old way we were doing it," said Ned Strain, manager of national YMCA employee benefit plans.

Until now, an optional mail-order pharmacy plan existed as part of an indemnity insurance health plan, but only about 15% of employees opted for it, Mr. Strain said. Now it is mandatory to be in the PBM for all employees covered by the national organization.

The self-funded, non-profit organization expects a 13% drop in drug costs. The group signed a one-year contract with Value Rx, Inc., a national PBM that recently agreed to be acquired by Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. Value Rx is being promoted by the Chicago-based Midwest Business Group on health to its coalition members.

"The drug expenses seemed to be outpacing every part of our (health) plan," Mr. Strain said.

More than 12% of the organization's health expenses are prescription drugs, and this segment has risen 50% faster than the rest of its medical costs, he said.

"The goal was to gain control, to get better utilization and to monitor it-and to save money."