Retirement Application Processing at OPM

You’ve all heard about the problems OPM has been having processing retirement applications and the hardship it has caused recent retirees. I alluded to it at the end of my last article. This time around, I thought it would be a good idea for John Berry, the Director of OPM, to let us know how bad things are and what’s being done to resolve the problem. What follows is an excerpt from his November 15 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy.

"On the issue of Federal annuitants, I am deeply troubled by the timeliness of processing retirement claims. The retirement applicants who experience delays are dedicated Federal employees who have devoted their careers to serving the citizens of this country. They deserve solid, respectful treatment that is commensurate with their service. Nothing less is acceptable to me.

"My paramount goal is to improve the overall claims adjudication process. There is no simple or easy solution that is capable of instantly remedying the problem, but we are doing everything in our power to improve service to our annuitants as rapidly as possible within the constraint of available resources. We have begun several initiatives to speed up the review of retirement claims and to streamline other retirement procedures.

"In keeping with our budget request for fiscal year 2011, I shifted resources to allow for the hiring of additional legal administrative specialists (LASs) to process pending claims. Our retirement group recently completed training 35 newly hired LASs to assist with the current backlog and future workload. Recognizing the need for more talent in processing retirement claims, I have shifted around more resources to ensure that we can hire an additional 40 LASs as soon as possible. While these new LASs are improving our ability to process cases, it will be at least six months before these newer employees are adding to our capacity to process pending claims. It should be noted that the increased staffing levels are needed to replace staff that were eliminated in anticipation of the implementation of the automated Retirement Systems Modernization (RSM) that failed in 2008 and staff that retired in 2009.

"Additionally, we are analyzing the current workflow and aligning similar workloads to maximize efficiencies. For instance, until recently 80 percent of all pending non-disability Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) claims were processed in our Boyers, Pennsylvania office where they are received from the agencies. The remaining 20 percent had been sent via courier from Boyers to be processed by our Washington, DC, office. We are now keeping 100 percent of new non-disability FERS claims in Boyers and deploying the Washington, DC, staff who had been working on those claims to disability claims, where our case backlog has grown due to fewer staff processing those type of claims. A team from the Navy, which specializes in process improvement, will begin working with our team this month to identify changes that can be made to current work processes.

"We are currently working with agencies to improve timeliness and quality of personnel payroll information submissions. Currently, processing times are averaging 133 days for non-disability cases. Indeed, OPM’s Strategic Plan speaks to the shared responsibility for retirement processing among employees, agencies and OPM, so resolving these issues is at the very center of our efforts. Incomplete or inaccurate information from agencies can significantly delay processing and ultimately, a retiree’s check. Unfortunately, 18 percent of all claims received are missing one or more records and 11 percent are not received during the first 30 days.

"In recognition of the delays in retirement processing, we have greatly enhanced our interim pay process to provide new retirees with income while their retirement benefits are adjudicated. Working with Agencies, we place at least 90 percent of all new retirees on interim pay within 5-7 days after receipt of their information. Approximately half are placed automatically on interim pay based upon Agency data submissions. The remaining cases are reviewed and placed on interim pay manually. In Fiscal Year 2011, new annuitants received about 80 percent of their final annuity while on interim pay. There are a number of factors that cause an annuitant to receive lower interim pay, such as those who have a court order dividing their benefit.

"We are confident that by working with our current management team and our workforce to reassign existing staff, build production incentives, add and train additional staff, and collaborate with agencies to improve the records they provide to us, we will address our back-log within 18 months and fulfill our commitment to Federal retirees. Nothing is more important to me than fulfilling this obligation.”

Well, there you have it. According to Berry, things are really bad but they are going to get better. I don’t know about you, but it gives me a chill to think that it will take 18 months to get rid of the current backlog. While new retirees who get through the initial screen are getting more money in their interim annuity payments, it sounds like they’ll have a long road ahead of them before their cases are finalized and they start getting full annuity payments.