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Personnel Agency Welcomes First Hispanic Director

Katherine Archuleta plans to focus on technology and diversity.

Employees at the Office of Personnel Management on Monday welcomed their new director, Katherine Archuleta.

Archuleta was sworn in Monday morning, becoming the agency’s first Hispanic director. The Senate last week confirmed Archuleta in a 65-35 vote, overcoming Republican opposition to the nomination related to the treatment of congressional staff under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Some Republicans voted against the nomination to express their objection to rules that allow Capitol Hill offices to contribute toward health insurance premiums for their employees, who are required to drop their coverage under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and join the insurance exchanges established under Obamacare.

During her confirmation hearing this past summer, the former chief of staff at the Labor and Transportation departments pledged to improve the retirement claims process by making information technology a top priority. 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, however, has made sustained progress during the past year to reduce the backlog.

Archuleta told lawmakers she would hire a chief technology officer “specifically focused on assessing and improving the technology products that OPM uses.” She also said that she would create an IT modernization plan in her first 100 days as director. Senators quizzed Archuleta on OPM’s role in implementing the Affordable Care Act; fights over Obamacare held up her nomination temporarily. During her confirmation hearing, the former national political director for President Obama’s re-election campaign 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 started Oct. 1, 2013. 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 administration wants to delay enforcement of the law’s health care mandate through March because of major problems with the website, which have created headaches for people trying to sign up for health insurance.

During a July committee hearing on Archuleta’s nomination, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., praised the nominee for her “confidence and drive,” as well as her experience with managing people and personnel processes. But he also admitted to being underwhelmed by her during an initial meeting. “I will tell you this, as a sidebar, when she first came into my office and interviewed with me, I was not impressed,” Tester told his colleagues. “But I can tell you in my conversations since and during the hearing, I was very impressed. I think in this position, and it’s a very important position as we all know, I think she will do a fine job,” he said at the time.

Archuleta, who started her career as a teacher in Denver’s public schools, said on Monday she plans to make diversity in the federal workforce a priority. “As an educator, a public administrator and a community leader, I know the value of bringing together talented people with diverse ideas and perspectives to improve any organization, and the federal government is no exception,” Archuleta said in a press release. “The complex and important work of government requires a diverse and inclusive workforce that is representative of the many important perspectives, talents, and backgrounds of our great nation. I am committed to building a diverse and inclusive workforce to serve the American people.”

Archuleta replaces John Berry, who left OPM in April when his term expired. Berry now serves as the U.S. Ambassador to Australia. Elaine Kaplan served as acting director from April until Archuleta came onboard. The new OPM director in her first blog post as head of the agency praised Kaplan for doing “a spectacular job of leading the agency during the transition,” and thanked her “for keeping the seat warm for me and doing a tremendous job.” Kaplan is now a judge at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.