PERSONNEL ADMINISTRATION

Employees get online benefits

Alabama county's workers can phone in or use the Web to select a plan

By Claire E. House

GCN Staff

Jefferson County, Ala., employees can enroll for benefits at the click of a mouse or touch of a phone pad.

The county's Web and interactive voice response system (IVR) this month began accepting benefits enrollments for new hires. It will handle its first round of annual open enrollment next month for the county's 4,200 employees.

'Employees have the option of which is more convenient for them,' said Margaret Howard, senior systems programmer in the county's Information Services Department. 'Not everyone has a PC, but everyone has a telephone line.'

County workers previously submitted paper forms, said Roy Burnett, risk manager in the county's Risk Management Department. During annual open enrollment, employees filled out paper packets on the job. New hires trekked to the courthouse of the 1,100-square-mile county to enroll.

Come back later

'We had new employees come in Tuesdays to the courthouse. It was inconvenient,' Burnett said.

Previously, risk management and payroll personnel both entered information from the forms into the county's database. Now, data enters the system directly when employees call in and select options using their Touch-Tone phones or fill out information over the Web.

CCS TrexCom Inc. of Norcross, Ga., designed and maintains the Web and IVR portion of the system, which interacts with the county-run employee and benefits program data portion. The system runs on the county's 10Base-T Ethernet LAN, which connects to Internet service provider BellSouth Telecommunications Inc. of Atlanta via T1 lines.

On the CCS side, one server handles up to 12 IVR phone calls at once, and another runs the Web application. Both are 266-MHz Model 7320 chassis tower servers from Industrial Computer Source of San Diego with 64M of RAM and 9.1G hard drives.

CCS' FirstLine Encore 6.1 runs on each server, supporting interactive functions and administrative tasks. CCS' Web Encore runs on the Web application server, bringing Web capability to the traditional IVR functions supported by FirstLine Encore. Both run under Microsoft Windows NT 4.0.

FirstLine Encore has three main functions: receiving phone calls and performing IVR, retrieving and transmitting data to and from the county's employee database, and handling administrative tasks such as script alterations for items such as changes in a selection menu.

Employee and benefits program data resides in a Unisys Corp. ClearPath HMP NX4800 hybrid enterprise server, which runs both the NT 4.0 and Unisys MCP A Series mainframe operating systems. The mainframe portion holds program data in a Unisys DMSII database.

Running on the ClearPath is terminal emulation software, which works with the CCS side of the system to transmit data to and receive data from the mainframe database.

'We've made it very easy in that there's no backloading of data or maintaining two separate databases of employee data,' Howard said.

The terminal emulator also lets staff at county PCs enroll new employees into the system and change benefits program rules within the mainframe, she said.

Each side of the system performs validation checks. The CCS side may verify that an employee given a '1' or '2' option enters '1' or '2,' Howard said. And the mainframe will ensure that an employee entry is within defined parameters for the benefits program.

FirstLine Encore contains the AcuVoice AV2001 text-to-speech engine from Fonix Corp. of Salt Lake City, so CCS administrators can type in a message for the system to read to callers. The system accommodates other text-to-speech packages and also handles various language programs, CCS marketing director Doug Benson said.

The county can now send electronic data to the health care and other benefits providers it works with, Howard said. Depending on provider preference, the county will encrypt, password-protect and e-mail files, drop them on a secure bulletin board for pickup, or mail them on tape or disk.

'Before, we sent out a lot of paper documents,' Howard said.

CCS' IVR and Web systems require some custom development to work effectively with particular programs and systems, said Jim Willoughby, CCS vice president for business development. He estimates that half the elements of each CCS benefits systems are common.

Although some organizations phase in systems like this by automating one bit at a time, Howard said, Jefferson County chose to automate the whole process at once.

'That way, we're in maintenance instead of always trying to catch up,' she said.

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