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Internet technology is propelling one small fast-food company's benefits administration into the 21st century overnight.

Now, instead of working overtime manually sorting through stacks of individual health plan enrollment forms before sending them to the appropriate insurer, Del Taco Inc.'s human resources director can turn her attention elsewhere while 100 corporate employees enroll themselves online from home or work via the company's new internal intranet.

Eventually all 500 of Del Taco's 5,000 employees eligible for health benefits will enroll online via a system that didn't cost the Laguna Hills, Calif.-based employer a dime.

Del Taco's primary health plan underwriter, Blue Cross of California, is paying for the new interactive HealthFare system that was developed by San Diego-based xyber-NET.

"When I do open enrollment, I have to hold 15 to 20 enrollment meetings that take two to three hours each," explained Charmaine Smith, director of human resources. "Then each person sends back five different enrollment forms, and I have to make sure they're complete and that they've included their Social Security numbers, etc.

"So it was really cumbersome, especially during open enrollment time. Also, the billings for health insurance needed to be prorated" every time an employee left the company or added a dependent.

As a result of this paperwork burden, Ms. Smith explained, "We couldn't get our bills paid in time-not because we didn't have money, but because of administrative hassles."

"Now, all the vital statistics are on file and (eligible employees will) be able to enroll online, so I won't have stacks of paper as tall as me waiting to be input," she quipped.

The only paperwork that will be necessary will be a signed form giving the employer permission to make the necessary payroll deductions or a declination of coverage.

And the system is so user-friendly that "I learned how to use it in a couple of hours, and I would not consider myself computer-literate," Ms. Smith said.

Before HealthFare, Del Taco had only an antiquated AS 400 payroll system and no in-house computerized employee benefits information system, she explained. Now when employees have benefit questions, Ms. Smith can access all the pertinent information with a few clicks of her mouse.

For example, "if they say they want to change doctors and they don't have a directory, I can pull up a directory right on the system," she said. "Or say the dental office calls and needs a birthdate. I can also look at an employee's history, what plans they have and which ones they had before to ensure their (health plan membership) cards are updated." Eventually, Ms. Smith plans to publish human resources policies, benefit plan descriptions and even HR newsletters online.

The software also enables Ms. Smith to easily enroll former employees in health care continuation benefits required under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985.

"I can put them on COBRA really quick when the check comes because people don't pay it until the last minute because it's so expensive," she explained. The program immediately back-dates the payment to the date employment terminated.

None of the transactions are completed, however, until Ms. Smith reviews pending changes and additions at the end of each workweek.

"I can pull up the pending screen that gives me a list of all the people whose changes were made that week," she said. "Every Friday I just click three buttons and it automatically transfers (the information) to xyberNET in San Diego, and on Monday morning they route it to Blue Cross."

Ms. Smith can access every employee's records, while the security system ensures that employees can access their individual records only. And employees can only make changes during open enrollment.

Del Taco is the first company to pilot the system, which has been in development for three years, according to Joe Bigley, chairman and chief executive officer of xyberNET.

Founded in 1979, xyberNET designs information services products for insurers and financial service companies worldwide.

While only one insurer is online in the Del Taco pilot, "There's no limit to the number of insurers or locations" that can connect to the system, he said.

Del Taco's employee health plan coverage is underwritten by Blue Cross of California in the state and by WellPoint Health Systems Inc. elsewhere.

The HealthFare system is free to employers, because xyberNET sells to the insurers, which, in turn, provide it to their customers as a value-added service.

Usually one insurer is the primary sponsor. But if an employer has multiple insurers, "we'll build relationships with them and they will all contribute to the cost," Mr. Bigley said.

Currently, xyberNET's only customers are Blue Cross of California and Canada Life Insurance Co., but it is negotiating three other insurer contracts and has 22 proposals outstanding.

The system costs insurers less than $9 per year per plan enrollee, Mr. Bigley estimated. It's up to the insurer to decide whether to pass the cost on to employers.

But because xyberNET's HealthFare system also includes a billing module "so the employer can bill himself for health care premiums," it saves insurers "a lot of money," he pointed out.

Employees can access HealthFare either at work via a personal computer kiosk connected to the company intranet or anywhere they have Internet access.

"The HealthFare Web page comes up if they use the insurer Web page" on the World Wide Web, Mr. Bigley explained. "Then they need to pick out the employer, the insurance company and give their employee ID number and password. When they get to the HealthFare server they also need to enter an insurance ID number and another password, so there are double passwords. All the security is built in."