Fedweek

IG: Entire retirement application process remains paper, manually intensive. Image: Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock.com

OPM “has not made significant progress” in addressing the issues identified in a 2019 GAO report underlying delays in processing federal employee retirement applications, an OPM inspector general report has said.

The report comes just ahead of the annual surge in retirement applications around the turn of the year which causes a spike in the backlog at OPM, which commonly takes months for the agency to work down. The length of the processing time—during which new retirees receive only partial, estimated payments, with the difference made up when the adjudication is finalized—has been an issue for many years.

The IG said that the GAO report made recommendations focusing on three main issues: the continued reliance on paper-based forms, insufficient staffing and errors on the applications themselves. Regarding the first, the IG said that an online application process “is still in the early stages of development, and the entire retirement application process is paper and manually intensive.”

“OPM is also hoping to invest in a case management system that would facilitate electronic filing and is exploring ways to fund this needed system. Expanding the services available online is particularly important given the demand for telephone assistance from OPM. OPM could reduce the need for annuitants to call the agency by enabling annuitants to access more tasks and information online,” it said.

Regarding staffing, it said that during surge periods OPM uses “overtime and outside resources from other agencies” but that it “still does not know how much additional staff would be needed to meet its processing goal or reduce the overall inventory of unprocessed applications to its targeted steady state goal.”

Regarding errors in the applications—which require back and forth between OPM, the retiree and the retiree’s former agency—the IG found that the average processing time at OPM for six sampled applications without such errors averaged 53 days while the average for seven sampled applications containing such errors averaged 108 days.

OPM management said it “is committed to prioritizing and allocating additional resources to close out the open GAO recommendations”; it cited efforts including efforts to address bottlenecks and reduce errors in applications, and its plans to modernize its IT to receive applications electronically. However, OPM said that while it agreed in concept with an IG recommendation to report average processing times broken down by whether applications contained errors, its current IT cannot do so.

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