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Info Tech Needed To Fight SARS

AIG acknowledges disease has limited Asia-based agents' abilities to interact with clients—with possible impact on bottom line.

Although there have been relatively few cases of SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) reported in the United States (63 had been reported at press time), US companies are not immune. For example, New York-based global insurer AIG's Asian operations have shown symptoms of the disease's ill-effects, including limits on agents' ability to interact with clients.

In comments made during the insurer's first-quarter earnings call in May, AIG chairman and CEO Maurice "Hank" Greenberg related that AIG will suffer first-year premium losses in its Asian territories due to SARS. The day after videoconferences were conducted office-by-office throughout the carrier's Asian operations, Greenberg reported, "it is very difficult for agents right now in Hong Kong, and in Southern China and Beijing, to make calls on clients. Everyone is concerned about meeting face-to-face with anybody, so first-year premium will suffer somewhat."

Further complicating the situation is the fact that, according to an AIG spokesperson, Asia-based agents generally do not have the technological resources necessary to link them electronically with clients and potential customers. In response to the set-back, according to Greenberg, AIG's strategy includes direct marketing and more telephone marketing.

Additionally, "the agents are very creative in finding ways to communicate," Greenberg said during the call, and he optimistically predicted that SARS will not dramatically impact AIG's bottom line. "Because renewal premiums continued very strong, it should not be a problem that we won't be able to make up in other territories," he said. In order to curb the potential effects of a breakout of SARS at AIG, the carrier reportedly is taking the necessary precautions. Although "very few of our agents have any SARS indications," said Greenberg, "as soon as somebody has a sniffle, of course, they are quarantined."

AAHP Tracks Disease

In an effort to track SARS-related symptoms that may indicate exposure to the disease in the US, members of the American Association of Health Plans (AAHP) are currently discussing an expansion of their HIPAA-compliant bioterrorism detection partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Health plans participating in the program include Harvard Pilgrim Health Care/Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, HealthPartners, Kaiser Permanente Colorado and UnitedHealthcare.

As part of the effort to identify geographically-based spikes in symptoms or illness, health plans participating in the pilot link a patient's symptoms and diagnosis to their ZIP code, according to Carmella Bocchino, vice president of medical affairs, AAHP. Each night, electronic reports that contain the anonymous aggregate data are sent to a data center at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care/Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates. Once data is received, a software program built with predetermined benchmarks for different geographical areas filters the data so that it can identify large concentrations of symptoms or illness. If a geographically based spike is identified, a report is sent to that area's public health officials.

Similarly, in an effort to prevent the spread of SARS in Canada (at press time mid-May 318 probable or suspect cases of SARS had been reported) Health Canada—an administrator of the Canada Health Act, which ensures all residents have reasonable access to medically necessary insured services—is using its Web site to provide statistical and surveillance data to the public. According to Emmanuel Chabot, spokesperson for Health Canada, the site's SARS information page has been updated daily at 4 p.m. (EST) since March 16.

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