SENATORS CALL ON OMB TO RESOLVE PENSION DELAYS
By Stephen Losey
Three Democratic senators want the Office of Management and Budget to step in to fix the government's longstanding pension delays.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin urged OMB's top official to force the Office of Personnel Management to fully automate federal retirement processing.
The senators, in a Monday letter to acting OMB Director Jeffrey Zients, said they have received numerous requests for help over the last year from frustrated new retirees who receive partial interim pensions while they wait for OPM to calculate their full pensions.
"Frankly, the current situation is unacceptable," the senators wrote. "After looking into this issue, we were deeply concerned to learn that this appears to be a vast, ongoing and systemic problem."
For years, OPM has struggled with delays in calculating the pensions of new federal retirees, but the problem has only grown worse. It now has a backlog of 62,000 new retirees awaiting full pension checks, many of whom receive interim payments that average 80 percent or less for five months or more.
The senators want to see a long-term plan to put commercially available records management technology in place as part of the fiscal 2014 budget.
OPM tried such a solution before — a project called RetireEZ — but that effort failed in 2008. OPM Director John Berry told Warner and other senators during a hearing last week that RetireEZ failed because it was too difficult to adapt commercial technologies to the government's fractured and specialized personnel systems.
But the senators said the government must find a way to make an automated system work.
"It should be clear that we cannot solve the long-term concern about processing retiree benefits without incorporating technology to automate data feeds from other federal agencies, to standardize forms used to convey information about retirees, and to speed other basic functions which will improve the intake and processing of interim and final benefits due to retirees," they wrote.
They also want OPM to submit a report to Congress within 90 days listing agencies that have not submitted accurate or complete retirement documents. Berry said last week that incomplete records cause a major logjam in the process, because OPM employees must track down missing documents before they can start calculating pensions.
And the senators want OPM and human resources personnel across the government to prepare a standardized checklist of information and documents that should be collected during the year before an employee retires.
Berry pledged to make fixing the retirement process his top priority this year, and in January released a plan he said would solve the problem in 18 months.
Mikulski in 2010 sent Berry a letter urging him to fix the pension process. But the fact that Mikulski and the other senators bypassed OPM with this letter and went straight to OMB may show that patience with OPM is wearing thin on Capitol Hill.