The Office of Personnel Management has cut its backlog of unprocessed pension claims by 21 percent in the five months since it unveiled a new strategy to fix the longstanding problem.
According to statistics posted online today, OPM cut the backlog by 1,150 cases in June, bringing the backlog down to 48,323 unprocessed claims. In January, when OPM announced its plan to fix its problematic pension process, the inventory was 61,108.
But even though OPM has made progress so far in 2012, the size of the backlog is still far greater than it was in October 2010, when OPM Director John Berry pledged to fix the problem. That month — when Federal Times first reported that many retirees were waiting six months to a year for pensions that were often half of what they were owed — OPM said it had 38,400 cases backlogged.
Still, OPM is making progress. The backlog has now fallen for five months straight. And OPM processed 8,964 cases in June, about the same amount as it processed in May. That is more than the 8,500 claims it expected to process in June.
And OPM received 7,814 retirement claims last month, slightly fewer than the 8,000 it expected.
For more information on what OPM is doing to fix this decades-old thorn in its side, read our exclusive interview with Associate Director of Retirement Services Ken Zawodny here, and our original story on OPM’s new strategy here.
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry’s plan to fix its longstanding pension processing problem got a relatively warm reception on Capitol Hill today. But there were some red flags raised, not least of which is the incredibly sprawling and antiquated set of IT systems and paper-based processes that the government relies upon to calculate new retirees’ pensions. OPM doesn’t have a real plan for straightening it out, the Government Accountability Office said, and needs to do more.
For example: OPM has 80 legacy systems that have to talk to roughly 400 other systems across the rest of the government, IG Patrick McFarland said. And those systems rely on roughly 3 million lines of custom code. If OPM decides to change or repair something in those systems, McFarland said, that is difficult to modify because the agency has to sift through all 3 million lines to find the one line in particular that needs tweaking.
Berry said some systems still even use COBOL, believe it or not, a dinosaur of a programming language that was first introduced 50 years ago.
As a result of all the IT problems, calculating pension payments is still largely a paper-and-pencil process — one that is made much more difficult when agencies don’t submit all the necessary documents. Which is what usually happens.
GAO’s Valerie Melvin also said that OPM’s plan “does not describe whether or how the agency intends to modify or decommission the over 80 legacy systems that support retirement processing.” She wants OPM to take a broader look at its overall IT system structure, and formulate a concrete plan for how it will straighten things out. ”There’s a lot more OPM can do,” Melvin said.
Senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs federal workforce subcommittee praised Berry for putting the plan forward, and IG McFarland said OPM is now on the right track.
But consultant George Nesterczuk, a former OPM official, blasted Berry for abandoning a full-scale, IT-based modernization of the retirement process and instead relying heavily on adding people. Although the previous administration’s Retirement Systems Modernization strategy that relied on commercial technologies crashed and burned in 2008, Nesterczuk said it “was a sound strategy and it should receive renewed consideration.”
In the meantime, pressure is mounting on OPM. Berry said OPM received 21,000 new retirement applications in January — traditionally the busiest month — which swelled the backlog to 62,000. But there was a bright spot last month — Berry said OPM processed 20 percent more cases this January than in January 2011, which he sees as proof the reforms are already taking hold.
He also pledged to report the size of the backlog to Congress on the fifth day of each month.
[Updated blog post to clarify that OPM's processing problems are a result of all of its IT difficulties.]
The effort to tame the Office of Personnel Management’s struggling retirement system is about to lose its leader. Associate Director of Retirement Benefits Bill Zielinski will return to the Social Security Administration in September to become its next regional commissioner in San Francisco, Federal News Radio reported yesterday.
That’s not good news for the tens of thousands of recent federal retirees who aren’t getting their complete pension checks, and were looking to Zielinski to fix the perennial problem. OPM Director John Berry made it Zielinski’s top priority last fall, and Zielinski felt the agency was making progress. Zielinski last month said OPM would issue quicker, more accurate interim annuities by using the initial pension estimates retirees’ employing agencies. And OPM is moving to eliminate paper records in favor of electronic records, which he hopes will eventually allow faster, more accurate calculations.
OPM said that Kenneth Zawodny, who is currently deputy associate director of the Center for Operations at the agency’s Federal Investigative Services Division, will take Zielinski’s place. FISD handles background checks for the bulk of the federal government, and Zawodny is in charge of case management and field investigation programs, including international and counterintelligence investigations.
It’s been almost two months since Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry pledged to pick up the pace on getting federal retirees the complete annuities they’re owed. Federal Times would like to hear from you recent retirees — are you seeing any progress?
- If you’ve been waiting for your full pension for months, have you found OPM to be more helpful and responsive to your questions than they’ve been in the past? Or are they still unable to answer retirees’ questions and responding with automated form e-mails?
- If you got your first interim pension payment in the last month or so, were you shortchanged? Or did OPM find a way to maximize the amount you received, as they promised to do by the end of December?
- And finally, have you received your complete annuity lately? And how long did it take?
E-mail me at email@example.com if you’d like to talk. If you’d prefer to talk anonymously, that’s fine.