Columbus Life Insurance is a highly respected name in Columbus, Ohio, and its system for managing policy records was long established and reliable. Unfortunately, that system, which was based on jacketed microfiche, was also cumbersome, causing slow response times to policyholder inquires.
When the decision was made to relocate Columbus Life from its hometown to Cincinnati, Ohio (the headquarters of its parent company, Western Southern Life), the need for change became clear. As Patrick Walsh, manager of Western Southern Life's Advanced Technology Group explained, "Moving huge quantities of jacketed fiche from Columbus to Cincinnati was impractical." Could the microfiche be converted to electronic images, expediting the move and the company's future policyholder service?
Studies quickly showed that the task was enormous. Life insurance is a paper-intensive business with lots of old but active policy records that require periodic updating. In the case of Columbus Life, these records included some 4,000,000 jacketed microfiche. With each jacket containing up to 50 images, that meant 20 million potential images to convert.
Columbus Life and Western Southern demonstrated their commitment to the future by choosing to move ahead technologically as well as physically by advancing from desktop terminals, microfiche readers and typewriters to PCs, imaging and workflow. One hundred sixty workstations were equipped with the latest hardware and software for high speed document image processing and retrieval to accommodate the new system.
Solving the Conversion Problem
But the problem of converting the jacketed microfiche to electronic images remained. "When we started this project, we didn't really know what could or could not be done. It has been a learning experience, with lots of changes along the way," said Walsh. "Our initial though was to get a service bureau to scan the jacketed fiche, but the costs came in around 10 cents an image, which seemed very high. That alone would have eaten up two-thirds of the total budget! Also, there were additional problems and potential expense. The fiche was our original and only record. Should we copy it before releasing it to a service bureau, and if so, should we send out the original or the copy? Sending out the originals involved risk, to which insurance companies are naturally adverse, and that meant that the records would be inaccessible for a period of time. Also, nobody knew which record would be needed when, although Murphy's Law dictates that the one required is the one that is unavailable! Using a service bureau would impact negatively on the business, so our thoughts turned to doing the scanning in-house."
According to Wayne Sandberg, President of Amitech, who sold the system to Columbus Life, "Jacketed fiche are very different from ordinary step-and-repeat fiche, as they create an inherent problem for scanning. Jacketed fiche consist of strips of film or individual frames placed inside rows of transparent pocket strips. It has been a great way to convert continuous film into easily indexed and fileable entities. As such, it has been ideal for policy files, as it can be updated at different times. But this flexibility causes problems with scanning. The frames are not necessarily straight; there are different size gaps between different strips or frames; resolution density can vary as different parts of the fiche are created at different times; and extraneous dirt, hairs, etc., can get introduced into the jacket if the environment is not clean."
Amitech, a Washington, DC-based VAR, made two high speed scanners for jacketed fiche available to Columbus Life for evaluation — one made by Mekel Engineering and one by SunRise. The two scanners were evaluated by Project Manager Rita Roeper, Walsh, and a team of programmers. "We decided to go with SunRise because of their RowScan product. It gives us much faster throughput," explained Walsh. "RowScan scans the entire jacket into one image, locating, segmenting and extracting the individual pages later as an electronic process. It scans a row in 11 seconds, but it has a blank row detect which stops it from scanning when it detects blank images. As many jackets are only half full, this speeds up scanning so that some jackets can be scanned in as little as twenty seconds."
Added Roeper, "We even held up production to ensure we got an additional SunRise feature, IDC (Image Density Compensation). Western Southern was one of the first companies to use it. We started microfilming in the '70's, so there are lots of variations in quality of film, speckles, etc. We felt that, with the quality of our first fiche, IDC was critical to producing quality images."
Dual Scanners for Active Polices
The original idea was to run two SunRise scanners — one for archived records and the other to scan active policies as they were requested to process claims or make changes, but it became apparent that both scanners needed to be used for active policies, "It took us a while to realize, but only about half our records are currently being accessed. By scanning on request, we could build our image database while eliminating the need to make a copy to send to whoever is requesting the file. Scanned jackets are marked and refilled at the front of the drawer. We have one operator running both scanners and creating about 20,000 images a day, around 400-500 jackets. So far we have scanned about one-sixth of the total jackets."
A key issue is setting up RowScan with the correct settings since the whole jacket, which may have large density variations within it, is scanned. A programmer came from SunRise and helped Columbus Life with this. Now the individual feeding the jackets to the scanner has a feel for which one will scan well. Questionable jackets are set aside for separate scanning later in the day, when the scanner is reset to do the "really bad" jackets. They are finding that about 2% of the scanned images have to be reworked, which is done manually using a ScreenScan system.
Indexing Key to Organization
Indexes are keyed, although it's tedious and time-consuming work. However, Columbus Life felt that as they are only doing it once, they wanted to do it right. Each image has a policy number associated with it, which is the primary index. RowScan works by scanning the complete fiche into one image and passing the image over the LAN to a workstation which locates and "segments" or separates each individual frame electronically. It then extracts each frame as a separate TIFF image.
In the case of Columbus Life, after the image goes through the segmentor and extractor, a Visual Basic program imports the Policy Number index into an Oracle database. The image is then available to a team of indexers who recognize and key in the secondary index fields which are the document names. The secondary index field was drawn up after Roeper and her team examined some 300 different Columbus Life forms and grouped them into document name levels. Now they use an average of three keystrokers per index, and currently work with about 40 secondary indexes.
This was another area where changes were made as the system evolved. Originally, Roeper's team started with 100 secondary indexes, but found this too cumbersome. As they prepared the training manuals, they realized it would take an inordinate amount of time to train the temporary help they would be using to index. So the pendulum swung to the other extreme, with 10 secondary indexes. This gave faster indexing, however retrieval time expanded because fewer categories necessitated screening through images. Forty categories have yielded the best compromise between indexing and retrieval times.
Flexible Plan Enhances Resources
So far, Columbus Life and Western Southern have converted about 3.5 million images. The process has been slower than using a service bureau, but has also been more economical and allowed the company to use its own staff. By keeping its plan flexible and working with situations as they evolve, Columbus Life has been able to make the best use of its resources during this time of transition. Walsh enthused. "This has been one of the best projects I have ever worked on. It was a unique period of time, it has been fun and a great learning experience."
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