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TSP's automated system on the mend, officials say

While not all of the wrinkles have been ironed out of the new Thrift Savings Plan’s automated record keeping system launched in June, board officials confirmed Monday morning that significant progress had been made over the past several weeks in getting the system running.

While not all of the wrinkles have been ironed out of the new Thrift Savings Plan's automated record keeping system launched in June, board officials confirmed Monday morning that significant progress had been made over the past several weeks in getting the system running.

A problem with the system's Web site has now been fixed and a backlog of about 70,000 loan repayment checks, paper loan applications, and paper withdrawal applications has been "virtually eliminated," TSP Executive Director Gary Amelio told the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board at Monday's meeting.

"But the phones continue to be a problem," Amelio conceded. "One unusual circumstance with our ThriftLine is that 79 percent of the callers are opting to go to a live operator. That is an astounding number, and since so many are opting for the operator, they're getting jammed up. I know that's frustrating."

The long-anticipated record keeping system is supposed to allow participants to check the daily value of their funds, offer more ways to withdraw money and provide online service for loans and withdrawals. But when it opened for business eight weeks ago, participants hit an instant roadblock when the Web glitch kept some of them from accessing the system. While TSP officials tried to find and fix the problem, they told the 3 million TSP participants to access the system by telephone, but soon the phone system was overwhelmed, further frustrating many of the plan's members. Many repeatedly got busy signals or were put on hold for long periods of time. According to Lawrence Stiffler, director of TSP's Office of Automated Systems, before the new system was installed, the ThriftLine received approximately 3,000 calls a day, but that number jumped to 37,000 calls a day in July, prompting BellSouth to limit the number of calls to the ThriftLine.

"They were only allowing so many calls through in a period of time so that we didn't bring down other phone lines in that area," Stiffler explained.

When that impediment was removed, ThriftLine calls swelled to as many as 100,000 a day and another 300 phone lines were added on Aug. 4 to help handle the increased call volume, Stiffler said. Another 200 phone lines will be added in the next few weeks, bringing the total number of phone lines to 900.

Programmers are still ferreting out and correcting other bugs in the system, including a lag time in password changes and daily updates.

But loan-related inquiries pose the biggest problem to getting the system running smoothly, said Amelio. TSP participants are able to have two loans at a time and can refinance an existing loan, he explained.

"Most of the problems have been with the loan program," Amelio said, adding that the majority of the TSP's administrative funds are spent on the loan program. According to Amelio, about 500,000 TSP members hold 800,000 loans. "This is a retirement plan, it's not a credit union, and we are not geared to deal with this kind of transactional activity."

Amelio suggested board members consider requiring members to wait up to 90 days to apply for a new loan after paying off a loan, and limiting loans to one per member. The new executive director is also looking at swapping the ThriftLine to a toll-free line, which would cost TSP participants $8 million a year.

"We need to look at these costs more fully," Amelio cautioned, pointing out that mailing costs are projected to increase this year. Stiffler estimated that costs for mailing four statements a year will be approximately $6 million. Amelio and the board members expressed interest in offering participants Web-only statements to save money on mailing costs.