Citing what they see as a growing demand for consumer access to retirement and other benefits accounts, insurers are embracing technology that not only provides such access, but saves money for the employer.

“Were involved in employee benefits and as we see it, there is clearly a strong demand for employers to want to offer self-service for employees,” states James V. Gemus, vice president of institutional e-business and banking for New York-based MetLife. “The Internet provides a great channel for employees to get information. Its natural for us to provide certain services online.”

According to Gemus, MetLifes strategy is to “look at what we do offline and move it online for clients.” He cited the recent announcement by Paragon Life Insurance Company (a MetLife company), St. Louis, of two new Web sites designed to provide its Group Variable Universal Life customers easier access and more convenient service for their life insurance programs.

The Web sitesnamed e-Enrollment and e-Serviceare now available to Paragons customers, the company says. Paragon President Tony Trani notes that the company is responding to customer demands.

“Our new Web sites enable us to meet the demands of our customers by offering them services they find useful, and choices they have been asking for,” says Trani.

The e-Enrollment site allows eligible individuals to make “certain life insurance and separate account fund allocations 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Paragon. The site also assists individuals in assessing their life insurance needs and selecting appropriate coverage amounts.

Paragons e-Service Web site provides around-the-clock customer-service options, including the ability to initiate policy transactions online, the company notes. “These transactions include accessing side fund balances, transferring money between accounts, notifying us of a change of address, or even requesting a policy loan online,” states John Tremmel, vice president of insurance operations & information systems at Paragon.

“Putting information online enhances the value of the benefits programs you offer,” says Gemus, “but theres also an efficiency aspect. Employers are moving away from large administrative groups. Self-service capability saves employers money and makes it easier for employees to get access to information.”

According to Gemus, MetLife is looking to Web-enable all of its products and services. In 401(k) administration, for example, customers have online access to account balances, loan amounts and contribution information, he explains. For MetLifes dental insurance plans, there is a Web site where an employee can get plan information, lists of participating dentists, eligibility requirements and claims history and information.

The next step in MetLifes journey toward more customer access is the MyBenefits employee portal, where a MetLife client with multiple benefits can get all of his or her information via a single online portal, says Gemus. The portal will also provide links to long-term care insurance, auto and home coverages and group legal services.

The MyBenefits portal is being rolled out in a launch that will include 50 employee customers (servicing a million employees) by the end of this year, Gemus says.

According to Sachin Shah, vice president of e-business for MetLifes institutional business, the MyBenefits portal will enable employees with dental claims to register for an online “claim alert” that will automatically e-mail them with the status of each claim. “If you wanted claims status offline,” he adds, “you would have to wait for a paper explanation of benefits or call to find out the status.”

Gemus says MetLife is rolling out MyBenefits to its larger clients (those with more than 1,000 employees) first.

He notes that MetLifes strategy to increase access is based on the companys “extensive customer research” on how both employers and employees want to contact the company. Based on the results, he adds, the company will “put those capabilities online.”

Another company that is moving toward increased access is Newark, N.J.-based Prudential. Prudential Retirement Services announced recently that customers with Internet-ready cell phones can now access their 401(k), 403(b) and 457 retirement plan information.

Plan participants can connect via their Internet-read phones to Prudentials Online Retirement Center to access financial information in their retirement accounts, says Prudential. Once there, participants have access to account balances, individual fund balances and prices for each of the funds in their portfolios.

The service is available to any participant who has an Internet-ready wireless application protocol (WAP) phone, the company says.

According to Prudential, this new service complements the companys current services that allow participants to keep up to date with their defined contribution retirement accounts from their personal computers and/or wireless devices such as a Palm Pilot.

The moves by Prudential have also been driven, at least in part, by customer demand.

“We have had requests from existing clients [for online access to account information], but our overall focus is planning for the future,” states James Evans, vice president, retirement services, for Prudential. “Explosive growth is predicted for wireless over the next few years.”

Evans points to “generational differences” that will spur the growth of wireless devices. “Even kids nowadays have cell phones; theyre growing up with that type of access.” He adds that this generation will want such access when theyre adults, and theyll want all those services as well via wireless devices.

Prudential is also continuing to examine its client base to “see what our clients are looking for, gauge usage and get feedback online,” says Evans. “We need to expand this further. People are looking for information as up-to-date as they can get it, when they want it.”

In a related announcement, Omaha, Neb.-based Benefit Partners, the employee benefits division of Jefferson Pilot Financial, has launched its “comprehensive online services, accessible through the companys secured Web site, allowing true real-time business-to-business transactions.”

“Jefferson Pilot Financials online services are aimed at providing superior service for customers by delivering real-time interactivity and access to group billing and member eligibility information online,” says Susan Harpster, assistant vice president, administration.

Accessing the services through the Internet, group administrators can view and update data online, including billing services, member information, policies and certificates, forms and administrative guidelines”all online and real-time,” the company states.

Information and a demonstration of the services is available at www.jpfinancial.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, July 27, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.


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