OPM digging out of retirement-claims backlog, but much work remains

Wednesday - 9/19/2012, 3:48am EDT

David Snell, the director of benefit services for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees

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At one point, retired civil servants were waiting an average five months before receiving their first annuity payments. Today, the Office of Personnel Management estimates, it will have eliminated the backlog entirely by September 2013, allowing it to process most new claims in the normal 60-day timeframe.

But the growing backlog of retirement claims and the long wait faced by retirees for full benefits has long plagued the agency. In late 2011, OPM Director John Berry announced he would bring in an expert to help with the backlog and named former Federal Aviation Administration chief information officer David Bowen as OPM's new CTO to drive technological improvements to the system.

Why the retirement processing reform was rated More Progress Needed
Reason #1: OPM Director testifies in House on retirement claims backlog getting worse .

Reason #2: In later hearing before a Senate panel, OPM IG Patrick McFarland testified about some improvements being made.

Reason #3: OPM estimates project the backlog will be cleared entirely by this time next year.

(More primary source material available on The Obama Impact Resource Page)

In January 2012, OPM sent lawmakers a detailed plan for tackling its retirement services backlog with more staff and upgraded technology.

OPM made changes to successfully chip away at an ongoing inadequacy, but the progress came after years of complaints from retired federal employees and pressure from lawmakers.

When it comes to the administration's effort to improve retirement processing times, Federal News Radio believes more progress is needed.

This rating is part of Federal News Radio's special report, The Obama Impact: Evaluating the Last Four Years. Throughout the series, Federal News Radio examines 23 different ideas and initiatives instituted by the Obama Administration and ranks them as effective, ineffective and more progress needed.

David Snell, director of benefit services for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees told Your Turn, hosted by Senior Correspondent Mike Causey, that despite improvements like slightly more communication worth retirees, a new application form, and online tracking of an application's process retires continue to wait months before they beginning receive a pension check that reflects their years of service.

"Do not expect to get a full retirement a week or month right after you retire. That calls for planning and looking at assets," Snell said.

And he recommends federal workers begin preparing for the retirement application process about five years before they plan to retire. He said workers should collect any pertinent records, schedule an appointment with a retirement counselor and figure out well in advance would record gaps need to be filled before ever submitting an application.

Retirees should expect to collect 70 to 80 percent of their pre-retirement income to maintain their same standard of living. However initial payments can plummet far below that level until OPM has calculated the official annuity for an employee.

Snell said the Office of Personnel Management will begin using a revised application form in December. And the office has also increased communication with agencies by providing a detailed checklist to make sure the agencies submit the proper paperwork for review.

He said OPM recognizes that partnering with agencies to ensure they provide complete and accurate records is critical and that OPM has included that as a goal in its strategic plan for reducing the retirement claims backlog. But NARFE officials told lawmakers during hearings this winter that they wanted OPM to be more aggressive and force agencies to submit complete applications on time.

"We really wanted OPM to get some muscle on this and be able to move the agencies .... and force the agencies to do a better job on their end."

And despite efforts to slowly shrink the backlog, Snell said he still receives complaints from retirees who have been waiting too long, like the disabled retiree who has been waiting for his claim to be processed since 2009, he said.


More from the special report, The Obama Impact: Evaluating the Last Four Years

Part 1: Evaluating the Obama administration's management initiatives

Part 2: Evaluating Obama's technology reforms

Part 3: Evaluating Obama's workforce initiatives

Part 4: Evaluating Obama's acquisition efforts

Part 5A: What would a second-term for President Obama mean for feds?

Part 5B: What would a Romney presidency mean for federal workers?