OPM tackles retirement claims processing again

Director John Berry says he wants to expedite process without sacrificing accuracy. Director John Berry says he wants to expedite process without sacrificing accuracy. James Kegley

The Office of Personnel Management is moving to address severe backlogs in processing claims from federal retirees, agency officials said on Wednesday.

Director John Berry told reporters OPM is trying to reduce processing times, which currently average 138 days, and improve service. Failed attempts to automate claims processing and a decrease in staff, coupled with an increasing workload, have caused the backlog to rise, he said.

OPM has tried five times to convert its retirement claims processing operation from the current paper-based method to an automated system. Modernization efforts in August were delayed due to concerns over progress. The updated system will be a central place for storing electronic retirement data compiled from agencies and shared service centers. Before moving ahead on information technology systems, the agency is examining how to expedite processing and determining which choke points would benefit from automation, said Bill Zelienski, OPM associate director for retirement and benefits.

"We've tried to do it all at once," Berry said. "We're going to try it a different way."

Officials said the challenges are missing paperwork or complicated cases involving employees with positions at multiple agencies, military service or pay differentials. Claims are considered on a first-come, first-serve basis, and those with missing information can cause easier cases to experience further delays. In addition, more workers under the Federal Employees Retirement System are filing claims than in the past, they said.

"The most important thing [employees] can do is to begin to work early with their [human resources] departments to build a complete personnel file," Berry said. "We can also help them with the expectation level. In some cases people look at the gross payment and they forget that you have tax deductions, health insurance deductions [and] survivor insurance deductions that take that gross number down."

According to officials, OPM is taking a number of steps to address the claims backlog. The agency has 130 employees working on claims processing. Senate appropriators have approved an additional 40 full-time staffers to handle retirement claims, but the chamber has not passed the bill yet. OPM expects over time to add 40 more employees on top of Congress' allowance, and will ramp up overtime opportunities to cover the backlog in the interim. But those actions will take time, officials said, noting there also are plans to increase staff covering hot lines and responding to inquiries from retirees.

"I see this as almost like a military action," Berry said. "As quickly as possible, but we still want to make sure we're getting good people and doing good training so we don't worsen the problem for ourselves down the line by losing sight of accuracy as well."

January to March marks the busiest time for retirement claims and OPM is working to build up its workforce before that period, he added.

OPM also has separated the responsibilities of addressing retirement claims from health and other employee benefits. The change could cause other services to suffer, but through automation and process changes the agency will be able to reduce the backlog and eventually scale back the number of employees working on it, Berry said.

Zelienski said OPM is working to provide agencies additional information to help them better understand the claims process and is taking a bucket approach to prioritize and address cases.

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