OPM shakes up retirement office to improve claims processing

Wednesday - 10/20/2010, 3:06pm EDT

WFED's Max Cacas

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By Jason Miller
and Max Cacas
Federal News Radio

(Updated Oct 21, 2010 5:20am)

Federal News Radio has been telling readers and listeners for months about the the ever-increasing backlog of federal employee retirement claims. Now the Office of Personnel Management is charging its new Benefits and Retirement Office to address the problem.

OPM Director John Berry named William Zielinski as the new associate director of the Retirements and Benefits Office in June. Zielinski has worked for the government for more than 20 years, including at the Social Security Administration where he was the associate commissioner for the Office of Retirement and Survivors Insurance Systems.

"I want timely, accurate service for all our retirees. We accept full responsibility." said Berry Wednesday during a news conference in Washington.

Zielinski and the new office must reduce the backlog of retirement claims in the short term and try once again to modernize OPM's retirement system. OPM has tried three other times unsuccessfully to upgrade the system. It cancelled the latest effort with Hewitt and Associates October 2008.

Berry said the backlog has increased steadily since the cancellation because agencies, including OPM, stopped hiring employees to process these claims. Instead, Berry said agencies were expecting to use the new retirement system. It's now taking more than 100 days to process retirement paperwork. OPM, however, doesn't have exact figures on just how many claims are waiting to be processed.

One recently retired FERS employee told Federal News Radio that OPM would give only 60-80 percent of their final amount and it would take as long as 25 weeks to figure out the exact annuitant amount.

"It seems a lot of feds are leaving under buyouts, according to OPM, thus causing a major backup," the retired federal employee wrote. "I was also told that the PIN number that the OPM letter referenced to access the OPM website for my account would also not be sent until after the final amount was determined. I can sympathize that there are many Feds retiring, but this wait and lack of access to a website to change address, bank account, et cetera is unconscionable."

In the short term, OPM wants to bring on an additional 40 people to process claims through a combination of overtime and detailees. Berry also said OPM is hopeful that Congress will approve its request to hire another 40 fulltime benefit claims processors in 2011. Both the House and Senate appropriations committees have included approval in their bills, but the full OPM appropriation has yet to be passed by Congress and sent to the President.

Berry said OPM wants to address the most pressing technology issues immediately. Zielinski, OPM chief information officer Matt Perry and others met with federal CIO Vivek Kundra to figure out the best way to upgrade technology.

OPM will not be able to get through the backlog by only processing paper, Berry said. Zielinski and Perry are considering how to use agile software development to address the processing of data in the short term and other technology issues in the longer term.

Zielinski also is conducting a top-to-bottom review of retirement claims procedures to determine what steps of the process still would be relevant under a more automated, data-driven system.

"Past solutions were always the big bang," Perry said. "We know that doesn't work, so we are looking. Matter of fact, earlier in the year, we went out with a request for information. We have several vendors who have come in and provided us with information. We've evaluated that information. We're starting to reach out to some of those vendors now. As federal CIO Kundra has stated, what we're looking at is modular deliverables within six month time periods or less."

There is no timeline to issue a solicitation or make a decision about the larger technology issues, Berry said.

OPM currently has three contracts for different aspects of retirement processing. The agency's 2010 Capital Asset Plan Summary states OPM planned to spend more than $14 million on paper data capture and conversion, business transformation/IT and program management office support.

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