Serving Up Annuities

Daniel Hertzberg

Everyone knows that when you owe Uncle Sam money, he likes to be paid promptly and in full. When the government owes you a check, well, let’s just say “promptly” and “in full” are not consistently applied.

The folks who are waiting for the Office of Personnel Management to process their retirement claims are painfully aware of that fact. OPM has struggled since 1987 to fix a broken federal retirement processing system that has delayed some annuity payments for years. It still takes the agency, on average, between four and six months to fully process a retiree’s pension payment, despite the overall improvement OPM has made in reducing its significant claims backlog. That backlog currently hovers around 50,000-plus claims. 
 
“Getting the backlog down is going to help a lot of things,” says Dave Snell, director of federal benefits services at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. Snell says at this point OPM is “doing better than I thought they’d be doing.”
 
Since January, the agency has chipped steadily away at its mountain of claims and continues to meet or exceed its own projected targets. That’s cold comfort to those still waiting for payments, but an improvement nonetheless. OPM’s goal is to eliminate the claims backlog by July 2013 and to reduce processing times so that 90 percent of claims are administered within two months of receipt.  
 
In February, OPM unveiled its strategy: Hire more staff to process retirement claims, fire poor performers and incrementally upgrade technology to expedite payments. The plan is composed of four pillars: people; productivity and process improvement; partnering with agencies; and partial, progressive information technology improvements. The concept of four components makes for a pleasant-sounding and alliterative framework, but really OPM is pinning its hopes on one pillar in particular—people.
 
“The reduction that is going on right now is being accomplished with blood, sweat and tears,” says Ken Zawodny Jr., OPM’s associate director of retirement services. OPM is training new legal administrative specialists who adjudicate retirement applications as well as support staff. By this summer, there will be roughly 200 employees at OPM working solely on processing those claims. 
 
The hiring boost is a result of public and congressional pressure. Lawmakers from Virginia and Maryland, home to more than 250,000 federal retirees, have been getting an earful from their constituents over delayed payments, poor customer service from OPM and errors in checks. OPM now must provide updated figures on the retirement claims backlog and its goals monthly. 
 
And as a result of that pressure, new applications could be receiving higher priority than others already in the queue. Snell says NARFE members who need adjustments to their claims, including retirees whose marital status has changed, have complained about delays. “Initial claims are the squeaky wheel, and that’s getting the priority,” Snell says. It’s going to be tough for the individual, he says, who has to live on an interim payment or who has yet to receive a first check.
 
Zawodny says OPM will make every effort to expedite the claims for retirees with financial concerns when a claimant contacts the agency. “We certainly do make the appropriate adjustments for that case.” Many retirees, however, have expressed frustration with OPM’s lack of information about the status of their applications and the inability to get through to support staff and claims processors by phone or email. One reader, in response to an April GovExec.com story on the retirement claims backlog, said: “Every time I phone OPM, I am given different information regarding the length of time it is taking to assign my claim and for the process to be finalized. I have also been told by an OPM rep that perhaps I should start contacting family and friends to ask for financial assistance until OPM finalizes my paperwork.”
 
Customer communication isn’t the only challenge for OPM; the lack of comprehensive retirement information across government also gums up the process. OPM’s staff relies on human resources specialists from the retirees’ agencies to send them accurate and complete applications. Zawodny says a fully trained OPM claims adjudicator can process a complete case in one day. The problem, he says, is that it takes 150 days to get the paperwork into their hands, and adjudicators often have to spend time tracking down missing documentation. According to Zawodny, it’s difficult to estimate the time it can take OPM staff to fully process a claim because adjudicators have “never had fully complete, healthy cases in front of them.”
 
The paper-driven process doesn’t lend itself to efficiency, says Erin Doyle, benefits officer at the Veterans Affairs Department. VA forwarded 9,700 retirement applications to OPM in fiscal 2011, and the documentation included has to contain original signatures—no faxes or scans, Doyle says. “Sometimes we have to send a copy back to the retiree so we have the original signature on file,” she adds.
 
Doyle says OPM has sought feedback and “they are very open to change.” 
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