OPM's Berry finds it 'incredibly crazy' that claims process not automated yet

The Office of Personnel Management’s longstanding uphill battle with handling retirement claims could finally see a respite next spring when top officials plan to release framework aimed at automating the entire process.

Speaking before the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia, John Berry, OPM director, addressed the reform to clear the retirement claims backlog and overhaul the mostly paper-based process model.

The timely issuance of annuity payments has long been a struggle for OPM, and a matter of concern for the Government Accountability Office. In the last several years, GAO listed OPM’s overhaul of retirement claims processing in its Top Management Challenges memorandum, Patrick McFarland, inspector general of OPM, noted in February 2012.

OPM officials in January 2012 unveiled a new strategic plan to address the backlog and have since submitted monthly progress reports to the federal workforce subcommittee. “Our goal is to get to where every retirement can be processed within 60 days,” Berry said. “That’s our target, and we promised we would reach that by next summer.”

The backlog has dipped from 60,000 cases to 40,000 cases, and OPM has managed to stay ahead of schedule despite an unexpected spike in retirements, Berry said. “Last month, we got hit with a big infusion of postal worker retirements, and our hope is that without more surprises we can continue stay on this plan,” he added. “So far, so good.”

OPM also has been reporting to the workforce committee on the accuracy of retirement claims forms it's getting from agencies. The goal is to get agencies with high rates of inaccurate or incomplete files “tighten their game and greatly help us,” Berry said.

The retirement claims procedure has largely been a paper-based process, and OPM’s last sweeping attempt to automate this process was the Retirement Systems Modernization project. The initiative was plagued with challenges and was canceled in 2011 after failing to meet its objective to reduce the backlog.

“Clearly, we can't keep going like we're doing," Berry said. "We’re stuck in this paper-pencil process because in terms of the records we have, [they] aren't automated in many cases. Some of the files we get have some automated data, but not all. These issues are going to be ongoing for a while.”

Berry and his staff have been working with U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel and Kathy Dillaman, associate director of OPM’s Federal Investigative Services Division, to develop an IT strategy, which Berry said he hoped to present to OMB next spring with the 2014 budget. The plan will include short-, medium- and long-term approaches on how OPM can turn the retirement-claims processing into an electronic procedure.

“It’s incredibly crazy that it’s not already, but we have to deal with reality and getting there will be in this plan that we lay out on how that’s going to occur,” Berry said.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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