Retirement is a time of monumental change. At such a time, the last thing anyone wants to worry about is their retirement benefits. That is why retirement specialists are increasingly turning to imaging as a means to get their records online and to answer any query within a matter of seconds. Not having to wait for a call back that may come hours, days, or even weeks later while a manual search goes on for records that may date back 40 years, is a very tangible customer benefit.
MACESS of Birmingham, Alabama, offers a comprehensive solution integrating three major components:
"We are out to solve problems," said Paul Gartman, Marketing Manager of MACESS. He was quick to point out that the benefits of their solution are not confined to retirees. The company specializes in retirement systems for public bodies — state, county and local government — as well as private organizations and health care systems. All are institutions that realize real benefits in providing increased accountability and productivity.
The solution consists of integrated input modules for microfilm, hard copy, EDI, fax or host ASCII data (COLD). These modules ensure that any document or report that previously would have been available on paper or microfilm is now stored electronically and available online to any networked PC. Once the decision was made to switch to an electron format, all incoming documents are scanned into the new system.
Backfile Conversion Problems
The biggest problem for these implementations is the backfile conversion. As Jan McKinney, Director of Service and Support at MACESS explained, "You cannot operate a dual system. If the new system is digital, then you have to convert the old records to digital also."
Retirement systems have records that, in a worst-case scenario, could be active for over 100 years. Norman Church, Retirement Systems Sales Manager for MACESS, cited an example of an employee who joins the retirement fund at age 18 and works through to retirement at 65. At 60 he marries a 20 year old who lives to be 90. With spousal benefits, that file would be active for some 112 years! This particular case may be rare but not unique situation, and it provides for a big conversion opportunity based on high quality digitized images.
The problems involved with the backfile conversion are demonstrated by the installation MACESS has done for the Retirement System of Alabama, which deals with all the pension benefits of the employees of that state. Their retirement benefits documentation is stored on jacketed microfiche. They had 670,000 jackets, with an average of 22 frames per jacket, which they estimate will translate into over 14 million images. Jacketed microfiche, which are basically folders with clippings from roll microfilm, are the most difficult medium to convert because of the tremendous variability within any one jacket.
Alabama began microfilming around 1954, before any standards were set for film development, and, as each jacket represents documentation over the eligible life of an individual, there is a mixture of old and new film. Some of the film was decomposing, with the backing starting to peel away. The film may also be discolored by age or chemical reactions, dirty and speckled, or show further damage caused by physical handling.
The state also tended to microfilm every single scrap of information, no matter what form it came in. As a result, there was a huge variation in the color, texture, skew and quality. The original documents could have been a note scribbled diagonally across a napkin, a letter received on personal stationary with colored image background, an old style birth certificate with white text on a black background, or the green background and handwritten address of a certified mailing.
Achieving RSA's Objectives
Doctor William C. Walsh, Deputy of the Retirements Systems of Alabama (RSA) mandated that his organization would not operate with dual systems for member folders. This meant that all microfiche images must be converted and be as legible as the original film image in the context of image content.
MACESS researched the equipment market and outside service bureaus and determined that only the SunRise scanner was capable of achieving RSA's stringent objectives. They chose SunRise because the scanners meet the three qualifications of quality, cost effectiveness and ability to meet the conversion time constraint. They are also durable and reliable — necessary qualities, since they would be running 24 hours a day.
The SunRise scanners had two features that MACESS felt were particularly important to this conversion — ScanFlo and AutoRescan software. Traditionally, setup can be the most difficult and time-consuming part of scanning microfilm. ScanFlo makes setting up the scanner for edge detection, rearm distance and contrast levels a simple matter of point-and-click. AutoRescan software allows the scanner to rescan an image automatically if it does not initially fall within the user defined image quality parameters. With the variable quality of film in the jackets, this became a valuable feature.
According to Jan McKinney, the deciding factor was "SunRise's willingness to work with us to improve the quality of the image we got from the fiche." Mr. Church also commented that "SunRise is customer service oriented, which was important to us, and (they) are very responsive."
The solution MACESS designed for RSA uses four SunRise scanners with a microfiche module as well as an assortment of paper scanners to fulfill the document capture requirements of the project. At the beginning of the process, a decision was made to scan all records and to do it more or less sequentially. MACESS began with those individuals who are eligible for retirement within the next five years because this is where most of the RSA counselor activity would be required.
Each fiche represents a member of the system. To keep track of all the images, MACESS used a barcode label with the member's social security number generated from a host system and affixed to the fiche. The fiche are then placed in a box to transport them to a hand-held bar code scanner which reads the bar code and enters it into the conversion file. Once the SunRise scanner scans the entire fiche, each image on that fiche is indexed with the member's social security number via the scanned bar code. The images become part of a batch with their unique identification. The batch is then transferred to the Vertex station for verification and text QA.
Once the images have been fully accepted, MACESS has an export program that transfers the batch under social security number, formats the images to system requirements and files them within the proper folders. MACESS then goes through an acknowledgment and reconciliation process and purges then from the server.
Because the quality of film is frequently very poor, MACESS is finding that they have to rescan approximately 10% of all images. Out of the rescans, around 10% (1% of the total) are of such poor quality that they are batched as illegible. These are then examined by a representative for the State of Alabama, who confirms their illegibility and keeps them from being entered into the system. Some may be blank sheets that were filmed, or the film may have deteriorated to such an extent that nothing is visible to the naked eye.
Even at such a level of deterioration, the scanner may still be able to pick up some form of text, but, if not, the frame is purged. Currently, they are getting a production throughput of around 3,600 images per scanner per shift, which by productions standards is low. However, as Church explained, "With the quality of fiche that we are dealing with and the variability, that rate is really quite high."
The overriding objective of the conversion is for MACESS to get as high quality an image as possible in order to service their retirees in the best and most timely manner. The Backfile conversion is proceeding according to schedule. As new documentation is being entered into the system digitally, the whole system will be completely electronic prior to the millennium. This means faster access time and quicker responses to queries, which will help put a shine on the golden years of Alabama's retirees.
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