With new backing from Hewlett-Packard Co., an Illinois company plans a Sept. 8 relaunch of an Internet insurance portal with new features meant to let consumers get bids on coverage and buy it entirely on-line.
The ebix.com portal will let any insurer or agent bid for the business. The service may find a following among the growing numbers of banks involved in insurance.
Ebix.com was launched in January by Delphi Information Systems of Rolling Meadows, Ill., an insurance technology company. But in its original form it linked only agents and insurers; there was no place for the individual consumer.
Last week Hewlett-Packard entered into an alliance to jointly develop, support, and market the site, which will henceforth be co-branded. The Palo Alto, Calif., computer giant has taken an undisclosed equity stake in Delphi and is bringing its Praesidium E-security product to ebix.com.
"We're convinced that Delphi has a market-leading concept here with ebix.com," said Keith Melbourne, Hewlett-Packard's group marketing manager for Internet business.
The insurance industry has lagged in developing Internet technology, said Robin Raina, Delphi's president and chief operating officer.
Individuals shopping for coverage will be able to submit queries to the ebix.mall area of the ebix.com site. The system will collect additional information from the customer and create a file to be posted on the secure site, including data normally gleaned in the quoting process.
Any agent or insurance company will have access to the information to prepare a quote. And agents will be able to compile multiple quotes by using the site's ebix.link to send information to insurance companies. (Ebix.link translates information sent by agents into code that insurers' older legacy systems can understand. The feature can reduce processing costs as much as 70%, according to Delphi and Hewlett-Packard.)
The quotes, together with background information on the insurers and agents from ebix, are transmitted back to the consumer, who can accept or reject any bid.
Ebix charges 50 cents for every bid posted, $20 whenever a customer file is opened, and $20 whenever the business to business link is used. Customers pay nothing to use the system.
Ebix.com says it has no plans to do billing but that it will consider getting into claims work. For now both those functions will be handled by the agent and insurer after an ebix-generated sale.
Bank-owned insurance agencies and insurers are looking for better ways to work together, and the plan outlined by Hewlett-Packard and Delphi may be such a way, said Carmen F. Effron, a Westport, Conn.,-based consultant and board member of the Financial Institutions Insurance Association.
"I think the idea is really interesting," she said. But she also noted that banks will probably have many questions about ebix's workings and reliability.
Felice L. Larmer, chairman of the securities and insurance operations at First Merit Corp. of Akron, Ohio, said that banks would have compliance concerns, and that many with plans to expand their insurance business might not want to compete broadly for nonbank customers.
However, "there's no doubt that the Internet is going to become a larger and larger force in distribution," she said.
Ultimately, the key test may be how smoothly ebix.com operates. "The process is everything," Ms. Effron said. "I think it's going to be fascinating to watch."