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Key developments in the world of federal employee benefits: health, pay, and much more.

Waitin’ on a Claim

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No one likes to wait around for a paycheck, or find discrepancies in the amount of compensation they are owed. The same goes for retirement payments.

The Office of Personnel Management has been roundly criticized for delays and errors in its retirement claims processing system, which is still largely manual and paper-based. Failed attempts to automate claims processing and a decrease in staff, coupled with an increasing workload, have caused the backlog to rise. Modernization efforts to shift to a fully automated system were delayed last summer due to concerns over the agency's progress.

But on Wednesday OPM announced that it had reduced the average processing time for a claim from 138 days to 117 days currently, and the agency is on track to bring on board 40 more claims examiners this summer. In addition, OPM is working with agencies to transmit retirement data to it electronically to expedite processing and reduce errors. "In the past six months, retirees said they want to see us pay as close as 100 percent as possible in interim payments," Bill Zielinski, OPM's associate director for retirement services, said in a conference call with reporters. "We need to get those payments close to 100 percent as much as possible."

Of the 43,000 total retirement claims now in the queue, 70 percent of them were submitted from January to March, which is typically the busiest season for people to put in for retirement, Zielinski said. That is a 22 percent increase in claims from the same time last year. Retirement claims submissions fell off from the end of fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2010, he said, because of the recession.

OPM relies heavily on federal agencies to provide it with retirees' information, including the amount of their annuity. Zielinski said OPM conducted a large-scale audit of agencies' information and found it largely accurate.

But that doesn't mean mistakes don't occur. So what is the recourse for employees pending retirement and retirees? Currently there is a toll-free number (1-888-767-6738) and an email address (opm@retire.gov) people can use, but complaints about delay times are ever-present. Zielinski said this summer OPM expects to improve services for retirees, allowing them to log in while their claims are pending to make changes and monitor their accounts. The agency also plans to provide recipients with the name and contact information of the claims examiner handling their case.

"It's more control for those individuals as they wait for us to complete their claim," Zielinski said.

In the meantime, he suggests calling or emailing later in the week or day with questions and concerns to avoid long wait times. Somehow, I think that suggestion might frustrate folks even more.

Are you having problems with your retirement claim? If so, email me at klunney@govexec.com.

 

Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Government Executive in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.

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