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NEWARK, N.J.-Three large Northeastern employers conducted their fall flex enrollment this year on the World Wide Web-breaking from the more common practice of restricting online enrollment to internal corporate "intranets."

Using software developed by Hewitt Associates L.L.C. and housed on a server at the consultant's Lincolnshire, Ill., headquarters, 11,000 employees of Public Service Electric & Gas Co. in eight countries were able to select health plans, purchase group auto and life insurance and even move money around various 401(k) fund options during open enrollment that ended Nov. 14, according to Dick Quinn, director of performance and rewards for the Newark, N.J.-based utility.

Employees at GTE's Dallas and Boston locations also used the Hewitt Web-based enrollment system, but only on a pilot basis during their open enrollment, which ended Nov. 12.

Digital Equipment Corp. also "went live" in October, a Hewitt spokeswoman said.

The Web-based enrollment option is an addition to the staple of automated enrollment services Hewitt offers employers on an outsourced basis, a spokeswoman for the consultant explained.

"They can use voice response, they can call in and talk to a Hewitt person, or now they can enroll through the Internet," she said.

Internet access is viewed as a major convenience for employees, as benefit decisions typically are made at home, where there may be more time to evaluate the wide variety of available benefit options, she explained.

Among the functions employees can perform on the Hewitt-built site are: annual benefit elections; savings plan inquiries and transactions; links to Web sites from benefit providers and government agencies; download claim forms; read benefit program summaries; and contact the corporate benefits department, which in the case of these three employers has been outsourced to the Hewitt Benefits Center in Lincolnshire.

Besides the convenience, the Web enrollment system is even more economical than interactive voice response, the low-cost phone-based system.

"Each Internet hit costs half as much as the average IVR call," said Mr. Quinn of PSE&G. "So we're trying to encourage our employees to use it."

The system also has built-in safeguards to ensure security.

For example, the address for the enrollment system's home page is provided only to employees and is not available via Internet search engines, the Hewitt spokeswoman explained.

If a hacker does manage to break into the site, the system will lock up if more than five attempts are made to guess either an employee's Social Security or personal identification numbers, both of which are required for access.

Furthermore, GTE is tracking the number of "hits" by each user so that it can contact employees whose accounts are being accessed unusually often, according to John Large, team leader of benefits elections.

"We are very conscious of the security aspect, especially since it's out there on the Net," he said.

The Web server records employees' benefit elections instantly, and information affecting payroll or other human resource functions is downloaded weekly to each employers' human resource information system. Hard copy confirmations of transactions also are mailed to employees' homes.

While it's too early to tell how many employees of these three companies used the Web-based enrollment, Mr. Large believes "it's worked out extremely well. If there were a problem, we'd hear about it."

Hewitt is in discussions with about a dozen other employers that will likely offer Web enrollment next year, the spokeswoman said.

"We'll have probably 20 to 30 companies going up next year and 90 to 100 the following year," she predicts.