President Obama’s nominee to lead the Office of Personnel Management vowed Tuesday to improve the retirement claims process by making information technology a top priority.
Katherine Archuleta said the agency “fell short” in previous attempts to switch from a paper-based system to a digital one. “Identifying new IT leadership, using existing agency expertise, and seeking advice from experts from inside government and the private sector, I believe that OPM can successfully update its IT systems,” Archuleta told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during her confirmation hearing.
OPM has struggled for decades to expedite retirement payments to federal retirees and eliminate the claims backlog. Many federal retirees have waited months and years to receive their full retirement benefits. The agency has made sustained progress during the past year to reduce the backlog, but sequestration -- which forced the agency to ban overtime for retirement services employees and the office to reduce its call center hours -- has slowed its momentum. The pile of incomplete claims stood at 25,542 in June, a reduction of 2.5 percent, compared to May. The agency estimated that the backlog would be at 16,078 claims at the end of June.
Archuleta, a former chief of staff at the Labor and Transportation departments, also said she would hire a chief technology officer “specifically focused on assessing and improving the technology products that OPM uses.” She also told the committee she would create an IT modernization plan in her first 100 days as director.
Lawmakers quizzed Archuleta on a range of topics including OPM’s role in implementing the Affordable Care Act, improving the security clearance process, and assessing the cost of official time used by federal employees participating in union activities.
Archuleta said she would draw on the expertise of OPM officials to stand up the multi-state plan program under the health care reform law -- arguably one of the agency’s most pressing tasks at the moment. Under the 2010 law, OPM is responsible for administering multiple state health plans on the insurance exchange network created by the law. The initial open enrollment for plans offered through the exchanges starts Oct. 1, 2013, for coverage beginning in January 2014. OPM will negotiate premiums and benefits with insurance providers who participate in the multi-state plans on the exchanges, similar to the agency’s administration of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which provides health care benefits to 8.2 million federal employees, retirees and their dependents.
The Senate is expected to swiftly confirm Archuleta as OPM director.