Senators take OPM to task over long wait for pensions

Thursday - 2/2/2012, 1:51pm EST

Federal News Radio reporter Emily Kopp on the Federal Drive

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January saw a crest, if not a tsunami, of federal retirements, with more than 21,000 employees leaving at the end of 2011. That has pushed up the Office of Personnel Management's backlog of retirement applications by 30 percent and given new urgency to the agency's latest strategy to catch up.

The urgency was on display Tuesday, as the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight brought agency leaders to Capitol Hill to explain why this strategy would solve a problem that has dogged the agency for 25 years.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va), who represents about 140,000 federal retirees, said his office has heard from one who waited 17 months to receive her full pension. Another, who lived in Colorado, spent a year on interim payments worth half of the total amount she had earned, before she drove to Washington to seek answers.

"It accentuates all of the worst kinds of images of federal government performance," he said.

New, more modest goals

OPM's strategy relies on increasing staff, cajoling agencies to provide more complete information and modernizing technology one part at a time. The agency said it would be able to catch up on the 62,000-case backlog within 18 months and process new claims within two months of receiving them.

That's not good enough, Warner said. "I just don't think that's acceptable," he said. "It shouldn't be the level of service we expect from the federal government."

But the goal, which is more modest than previous OPM plans, is borne out of necessity, Berry said.

"We've got to be smarter in how we do IT," he said, "But for the foreseeable future, we're dealing with a paper and pencil process and that's why I'm hiring more people and doing it within a frozen budget," he added.

New staff would take about a year to get up to full speed on the complicated claims processing system, he said.

The agency is hiring new customer service representatives as well to free up adjudicators' time for processing claims. Adjudicators now spend most of their time answering phone calls or tracking down missing documentation, Berry said. They process just three or four claims a day.

Aging technology remains a problem

Government auditors said OPM seemed to be headed in the right direction considering the financial constraints and complexity of the task, which make it hard for the agency to use off-the-shelf information technology products.

There are more than 500 procedures, regulations and laws dictating federal retirement benefits. OPM's retirement services staff use more than 80 different information systems that work with 400 other internal and external systems. They use about 3 million lines of programming code, OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland said.

"This means that the retirement IT systems are very carefully and specifically customized to the government's needs. It also means that it is very hard to fix something because you have to locate the one line of code out of those 3 million lines," he said.

All of that can be, and should have been, overcome, said GAO Director of Information Management and Human Capital Issues Valerie Melvin.

But "the deficit in IT management capability is very extreme at OPM," she said.

The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly criticized OPM for failing to manage technology systems effectively.

Agency leaders' commitment to the task would be vital to "get a culture in place at OPM where they can assess their capabilities and try to move forward," she added.

Berry said he had made fixing the retirement system his top priority and had assigned three senior executives to oversee daily operations. OPM would report monthly on the backlog to Congress, he said.

But he also underscored the precarious nature of a strategy that relies on outdated technology. If it should break down, "it's going to blow a hole in my strategic plan," he said.

At the end of the hearing, even skeptical lawmakers seemed sympathetic.

"I'm beginning to understand your quandary," Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) told Berry.

But lawmakers had less sympathy for agencies that repeatedly provide incomplete information to OPM.

"You've got to have some ability to have a hammer on these agencies and departments that are not getting you the data in a timely manner," Warner told Berry. He pressed Berry to provide monthly reports on how well agencies are cooperating with OPM's retirement claims processors.

This is the second hearing in recent months to focus on OPM's technology problems. A House committee took the agency to task in November for its botched relaunch of USAJobs.com, the federal hiring website.

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