If you think you’ve spent a long time waiting for an answer or solution from the Office of Personnel Management about your retirement benefits, you probably have.
Roughly 28 percent — or 540,000 — of the 1.9 million phone calls that annuitants made to OPM’s Retirement Information Office in fiscal 2015 went unanswered, according to a report from the agency’s Office of Inspector General. That’s worse than the previous year’s numbers, when 24 percent of the 1.67 million phone calls were abandoned.
About 22 percent of respondents to Retirement Services’ Customer Satisfaction Survey said phone lines to OPM’s toll-free line rang without an answer or stayed busy, and 25 percent said they waited on hold for long periods of time.
The agency added more phone lines so annuitants could more easily reach a customer service representative. But the inspector general says OPM doesn’t have enough staff to manage so many calls from its 2.6 million annuitants.
“Due to the Retirement Information Office staffing levels, the additional telephone lines actually increased wait times and led to higher abandonment rates,” the IG wrote.
The ratio of annuitants to OPM customer service specialists or contractors is 27,000 to 1, the IG said.
OPM’s legal administrative specialists, which are responsible for handling annuitants’ cases and for responding to individual questions, are not responsive to the messages left in their voicemails, the IG said.
The inspector general’s team left its own voicemails for 39 legal administrative specialists, and 21, or 53 percent, did not respond to the messages. Eight of 21 specialists who were nonresponsive had full voicemail boxes and could not accept new messages, the IG added.
“We only received this message because we were connected to OPM’s phone system,” the IG wrote. “Annuitants calling from outside the system would be unaware that their message was not delivered.”
And though Retirement Services said it’s meeting its goal to respond to all written letters, faxes or emails within 60 days or less, the inspector general found otherwise.
Perhaps the heart of the problem is that many annuitants said they didn’t receive an answer or the correct solution to their questions the first time they contacted OPM Retirement Services.
Of the 38 calls the IG screened, nine, or 24 percent, of annuitants said they’ve made other attempts to contact Retirement Services to resolve an issue. About 19 percent of annuitants said they weren’t satisfied with the time it took for the agency to respond to their questions.
In its observations of the Retirement Services walk-in center, 62 percent of visitors told the IG that their visit wasn’t the first time they attempted to resolve their issue. About 38 percent of those visitors said their problem wasn’t resolved in a timely manner.
Dave Snell, federal benefits services director for the National Active and Federal Retirees Association, said the issue of long wait times on the phone and sporadic responses from OPM has in fact worsened over the past year.
“I’ve heard from NARFE members who have tried to contact OPM by phone about something as basic as a notification of the death of a retiree or a change of address, who were on hold so long they gave up,” he said. “They have sent emails and letters, and months have gone by without a response.”
But whatever solution OPM finds will likely take more resources and funding, Snell said.
OPM’s Retirement Services said it agreed with most of the inspector general’s findings but added that it was actively trying to address customer service issues at the time the IG conducted the audit.
The IG recommended that OPM establish written policies for legal administrative assistants to handle annuitants’ phone calls and ensure that they’re collecting all voicemails. The agency should also add more resources to address the backlog of written inquiries.
At the time the report was written, OPM said it hired 20 customer service specialists and was in the process of hiring 22 more. The agency didn’t specify whether these new hires are specifically tasked with clearing the backlog of written correspondence.
RS has also reached out to other agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, for suggestions and best practices to improve customer service, the report said.
“[RS also] has followed through and hired additional customer service specialists,” the report said. “Given the current budgetary challenges/constraints, RS has done its due diligence to address and improve in this area. In addition, we actively engage and educate the annuitant population to know about and use the self-service automated customer service tool.”
OPM has said that it’s adding more self-service tools to the agency’s website, so that annuitants can often make changes to an address or other pieces of personal information without having to fill out a separate form or speak with a claims representative.
But the agency acknowledged that self-service tools won’t help everyone, particularly an older population of annuitants.
The IG noted that most federal annuitants, are, on average, 72-years old.
Congress earlier this month asked the Government Accountability Office for a full study on the process that agencies and OPM undertake to prepare and process an employee’s retirement claim. Some agencies have developed high rates as they prepare an annuitant’s application for processing at OPM.
The agency has long tried to modernize its retirement system, which is still largely done with paper, but a variety of challenges and setbacks have forced OPM to abandon those attempts. Clif Triplet, the agency’s new chief information officer, has said that the project is back on the table — and is top priority.