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ATLANTA-There will be two revolutions in employee benefit information.
The first, which will take place via the benefit manager's desktop computer terminal, already is in the making.
The second, which may spread through U.S. living rooms like a smash TV show, could take several years to catch on.
So say two benefit experts from New York-based J&H Marsh & McLennan Inc., who spoke on the present and future impact of the World Wide Web on both benefits staffs and employees during a session at the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. conference in Atlanta last week.
The consultants and a client described how one midsized company is using Internet technology to access vast amounts of new information on employee benefits. They cautioned, however, that the Internet may not directly influence the average worker's knowledge of benefits for some time.
J&H, one of several firms developing extensive Web sites on benefits topics, brought online its first 100 companies in March, said Robert Petrie III, senior vp in New York.
Its online service, called Benefitsmart, is being used free by some longstanding clients, but others pay a yearly fee for it.
The service, and others like it, provide quick access to newsletters and benefits industry magazine stories, tax information and reference materials-a "virtual benefits assistant" that aims to provide guidance to understaffed benefits departments in many areas, according to Steven J. Schloss, a J&H Marsh & McLennan vp in Hartford, Conn.
The service is intended to provide structure to guide benefit managers to key industry information and away from extraneous data. For instance, Mr. Schloss said, simply searching blindly on the Internet for the topic "benefits" yields 957,166 occurrences.
A J&H Marsh & McLennan client said such products opened doors to new sources of information his department wouldn't have explored before.
"We were not really using the Internet," said Dennis McCarthy, benefits manager for Rogers, Conn.-based Rogers Corp., which makes specialty composite materials. "This intrigued us: fast, accessible, timely information that could be retrieved at my desk."
Benefit managers probably will find most useful these types of Internet documents, Mr. Schloss said:
Executive summaries of significant journal and magazine articles. "Our thought was benefits people, when they go online, want to browse or graze," he said.
Summary plan descriptions, organized by line of coverage. In time, Mr. Schloss said, all employers with Internet access should demand as a contractual provision that insurers agree to provide SPDs over the Internet.
A unified source of information on multiple-location plan provisions. Instead of a stack of files from multiple branch locations, a single database accessible via the Internet can provide benefit managers with a description of coverages.
Simplified 401(k) plan withdrawals, done over the Web to cut down on benefits staff paperwork.
Network doctor directories, maintained online and accessed by employees, to prevent lists from continually going out of date.
Using the computer, the search for a physician can easily be narrowed by factors such as ZIP codes or languages spoken.
The nature of the Internet also makes it ideal for obtaining informal or anonymous opinions or information from the audience of users, Mr. Petrie said. J&H Marsh & McLennan, for instance, does a monthly user poll and recently found most respondents to the online survey said their companies offer no wellness programs to employees. Although not statistically an accurate way to measure, the polls still give some insight into the state of current benefits programs, he said.
Besides consultants' online products, both the Employee Benefit Research Institute and the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans maintain Internet sites carrying news on publications, seminars and research. Other information providers are marketing to benefit managers and hope to make money selling online advertising on their sites, Mr. Schloss said.
But benefit managers may be able to get comprehensive Internet service from their benefit consultants if they have a close working relationship with the consultant and should try to get the service free, he said.
Getting online, Mr. McCarthy said, also could save his corporation money. The company's 1,000 workers and dependents, for example, currently elect their preferences for health coverage by automated telephone enrollment, an expensive system that may be replaced with Internet technology.
Mr. McCarthy's company will use the Internet to supply online information on its health plan enrollment options in November to non-unionized employees who have access to computers. The unionized workers may receive the same information via kiosks, he said.
Perhaps few employers relish the potential expense of installing kiosks for benefits enrollment, or the challenge of persuading employees to use them. But Messrs. Schloss and Petrie depicted a future when virtually all employees will be able to use the Internet with as much ease as they use a TV to make benefits decisions ranging from health care to retirement savings.
The fusion of the Internet with the common television set, the consultants said, will have far-reaching consequences for workers and benefits professionals. Because Internet technology has so far reached only a minority of households, few companies beyond Silicon Valley have attempted to use the Web as a tool to allow workers to make benefits decisions.
But Microsoft Corp.'s recent purchase of Web-TV, a proprietary technology that allows the Internet to be used on a TV set with a computer mouse or keyboard, may change that, the J&H Marsh & McLennan consultants said. If eventually incorporated into the circuitry of TV sets themselves, widespread use of the Internet will surely follow, and the focus of much benefits activity now done in the human resources office will shift to millions of homes.
Most Web-TV customers have, in fact, been senior citizens eager to try a new technology but who like the simplicity and familiarity of TV, Mr. Petrie said. Such an audience might be ripe for conducting tasks such as pension inquiries over the Internet.
"A lot of people don't want to mess with the computer boxes," he said. "A lot of people do. But a lot of people just want the data."
Mr. McCarthy moderated the session and Mr. Schloss coordinated the session.