As a result of switching to document scanning, and eventually upgrading its equipment, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia has seen what its describes as a significant increase in efficiency and cost savings.The paperless office could be compared to the Loch Ness monster: People swear it exists, but no one has ever seen it. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, however, is one of the few companies that can say it has achieved this elusive goal, with the results to prove it.
The paperless office is appealing because it saves time and money. But few companies have been willing or able to pull it off. Some cite cost as the culprit, while others simply do not want the hassle of an ambitious project.
Yet, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia had the wherewithal to tolerate some short-term inconveniences for the long-term benefits of going paperless.
The Atlanta-based health insurer's odyssey began nearly a decade ago when it installed its first set of document scanners. The goal was to scan all documents mailed to the company and electronically store them for easy access.
The new process
Implementing an imaging solution requires much more than simply plugging in some scanners and installing software, explains Carol Williams, director of shared services at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia.
Many people are involved in handling a single document as it is pushed through various departments in the company. By switching to imaging, their world changes.
"You must redo the entire process," Williams says. "This means people have to think differently. They won't have to leave their desks any more to pass around a paper document. It's like e-mail. Everyone had to readjust."
The original scanners the company used in 1994 were state-of-the-art at the time. However, like all technology, the machines and their accompanying software have evolved since then.
Therefore, in December 2001, the company upgraded its document imaging system. Between its Atlanta and Columbus, Ga., offices, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia now operates seven Copiscan 8125 scanners from Durham, N.C.-based Bell & Howell Co.
The upgrade has been an improvement. "With the old scanners, if you had a document you couldn't read, you had to rescan it," Williams says. "Also, crooked documents had to be straightened out manually," she says.
The new scanners can determine if two pieces of paper are stuck together. The scanners also provide better clarity and a skewing capability that enables them to straighten lopsided sheets of paper automatically.
"No paper leaves our area," says Williams, who manages the mail area. When mail is opened, it is immediately placed on a scanner. Documents include medical claims, dental forms, and member information and correspondence.
After the document is scanned, the image is sent to a routing queue. Optical character recognition (OCR) software captures the scanned information and presents it on a monitor.
The company, which currently serves 2 million members, has saved in excess of $200,000 with the new imaging system. Surprisingly, much of the savings have resulted from phasing out routing slips, which accompanied forms as they were passed around the office.
Instead of using routing slips, the imaging software has a "comments" section where users type the necessary instructions.
With the assistance of broadband technology, the new imaging system also has allowed the insurer to expand its remote employment program.
"Employees can work on forms via a T1 line," says Williams. "This has been helpful for our telecommuting program." This also permits the company to balance load levels between locations.
Working from a remote location is further enabled by a document tracking system. "We don't have to worry about losing a document," says Williams. "When an associate works on a form, the software automatically stamps a user ID (on it), so everyone can see who had a document at a given time."
The system also eliminates any inequities employees might perceive with regard to workload, she says, since the documents are ordered by date and assigned by the system.
The new system also eliminates the need to maintain a vast microfilm library of correspondence. When claim representatives are on the phone with customers, they can immediately access any document in the database.
With the old paper-based system, representatives had to request copies of forms from the microfilm library. Customers had to wait until the agent received the form-which could take hours or even days-before the question could be answered.
Now, "people call and get their problems resolved at first contact-rather than waiting for a call back," says Williams.
In 1994, it took three years before the technology paid off. However, with the upgraded equipment, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia saw a return on its investment almost immediately, Williams says.
"We had the new scanners running at the beginning of January, and we achieved full ROI at the end of the month," she says.
Although she declined to reveal the cost the system, Williams says the new scanners cost one-third the amount of the original scanners purchased nine years ago.
"Today, corporations are in multiple locations," Williams says. That's why she believes imaging is the best way to exchange documents. "It can enable all your people to access the same documents no matter where they are."
Maria Bruno Britz is a freelance writer based in St. Marys, Ga.
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