Publisher's Perspective

New Year’s resolutions have a habit of repeating themselves, a sign of how hard it is to change practices that have become ingrained over the years.

So it’s unrealistic to expect great results from a recent report that in effect sets out a series of resolutions for the Office of Personnel Management in areas including the two most valuable benefits of federal employment, retirement and health insurance. But even if hopes are dashed, at least the problem has been defined.

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Again. Because the latest report from the independent inspector general’s office within OPM on management challenges facing the agency notes that like those unwanted extra pounds, those challenges have stuck around year after year.

Take for example the length of time it takes for new retirees to begin receiving their full annuity benefits, getting only reduced “interim” payments for the meantime. That has been a focus of at least the last four presidential administrations each of whom in turn passed it along—like an unwanted holiday present being regifted—to its successor.

“The timely issuance of annuitants’ payments remains a challenge for OPM, especially coordinating retirement benefits between OPM and other Federal agencies for disability benefits and workers’ compensation,” the report says.

It says the latest data from OPM’s Retirement Services branch—covering October 2020 through April 2021—show the average processing was 75 days, 25 percent above the goal of 60 days or less. Initial retirement cases processed in less than 60 days took an average of 44 days to complete, where cases processed in more than 60 days took an average of 99 days to complete.

One problem that has continued over time is that “the case management system is a legacy system requiring employees to manually input case information and does not allow Retirement Services to distinguish system coding errors, which can lead to processing delays and inaccuracies.”

One result is that the IG “continues to receive contacts and complaints from annuitants and other members of the public who are frustrated by attempts to resolve retirement annuity-related issues with OPM’s Retirement Services customer service office. Many of these calls are related to concerns about interim annuity payments made until the final adjudication of retirement claims.”

The average time for OPM’s customer service center to answer calls more than doubled to more than 10 minutes over the last year, which the report attributed to “a loss of 24 customer service specialists during OPM’s 11 month hiring freeze, increased call volume due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and an unstable telecommunications platform.”

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However, adding the needed people and technology to improve retirement processing and customer service “is a solution requiring support from Congressional partners”—that is, more money.

Regarding the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, the IG did give management credit for taking some actions against an issue it has pointed out in a series of reports, ineligible persons being enrolled in the program. The cost of covering them is passed along to other enrollees—and to the government—in the form of additional premiums to cover the costs of their claims.

The report noted that during 2021, OPM made changes to improve the verification of eligibility, but it still is “unable to identify or estimate how many ineligible dependents receive benefits from the FEHB or the total cost to the program from those improper payments.” The IG again recommended creating a centralized system to replace the scattered responsibilities of employing offices, OPM’s retirement office and the health carriers.

It said that “OPM has recognized the lack of a centralized enrollment portal as an issue and has stated that it is trying to address the issue through the development of the Central Enrollment Portal. However, OPM has not been able to sufficiently fund this project.”

Similarly, the report pointed the “somewhat patchwork collection of efforts to prevent fraud, waste, abuse, or patient harm” in recommending that OPM create a central program integrity office for the FEHB. That “is a challenge that OPM has acknowledged but cited costs and other constraints as barriers to implementation.”

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Noticing a pattern here?

Call lack of funding a reason these issues continue year after year or call it an excuse, it doesn’t matter. Because it’s just like an unfulfilled resolution: the problem is recognized but not overcome.

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