NU Online News Service, June 24, 11:10 a.m. – Joseph Markland, president of Benefits Technology Consulting Group L.L.C., Hopkinton, Mass., likes to call his firm the “Siskel and Ebert of benefits technology.”

The firm has reviewed more than 100 Web-based benefits administration systems.

So far, the most durable Web-based benefits administration companies seem to be the “people who stay local and stay focused,” Markland said in an interview at the annual convention in Dallas of the National Association of Health Underwriters, Arlington, Va.

Markland was not willing to pronounce the more durable companies “winners.”

Although the companies that are still here are, obviously, still here, “the winners have yet to be determined,” Markland argued.

But many companies that tried to enter the market with large amounts of venture capital and national marketing ambitions have clearly suffered, Markland said.

For one thing, Markland said, “the country is big.”

But the companies with national ambitions suffered another serious problems, Markland said: many of the big carriers that dominate specific regional markets have no incentive to support anything resembling industrywide technical standards.

Standards might help benefits technology firms improve Web-based enrollment and administration systems, but those same systems could help small carriers compete more aggressively with the dominant carriers, Markland said.

So far, the organization with the most visible effort to set health enrollment standards has been the HR-XML Consortium, Raleigh, N.C., a nonprofit group spearheaded by large recruiting companies, temporary health companies and benefits consulting firms, observed Markland.

Although some health insurers and managed care companies support the consortium, in general, “the carriers are not jumping religiously behind it,” he said.