Pressure builds on OPM to fix delays, backlog in retirement services

A group of lawmakers urged the Office of Personnel Management for answers and a timeline for modernizing its system for processing federal employees’ retireme...

The Office of Personnel Management is taking more heat from Congress about long-standing delays and a backlog of cases in federal employees’ retirement services.

Lawmakers urged OPM for answers on how the agency plans to modernize its system for processing federal employees’ retirement applications, which is largely paper-based.

“With one in three federal employees eligible to retire this year, OPM will continue to face strains unless the agency takes concrete steps to improve its review process,” the lawmakers said in a press release Monday.

The push from Congress comes as many federal employees continue to experience long delays in the processing of their retirement claims — something that has remained a challenge for OPM for years.

Currently, it takes an average of 81 days for OPM to process an employee’s retirement claim, OPM’s Retirement Services (RS) division said in a March report — well above the agency’s 60-day goal.

“This average points to repeated instances of multi-month delays, with some individuals facing even more extreme waits,” said Ross Apter, National Active and Retired Federal Employee (NARFE) Association’s director of legislative and political affairs, in an email to Federal News Network.

One federal employee told Federal News Network they have waited 14 months — and counting — for OPM to process their retirement claim, due to an issue with a required legal review. Several others without legal issues said their claims have still taken six months or more to process.

OPM has received a massive influx of retirement claims over the past couple of years, which does make it more difficult to maintain a lower processing time. Specifically, OPM added 114,505 annuitants in fiscal 2022, compared with 96,956 annuitants added in 2021.

OPM Director Kiran Ahuja told the House Oversight and Accountability Committee last month that among a surge in retirement, the RS division brought down its inventory, and increased production of cases by 20%.

Currently, there are 22,925 claims in OPM’s retirement inventory, in sharp contrast to the agency’s steady state goal of 13,000.

Still, OPM’s retirement claims backlog stems largely from the agency’s reliance on manual processing of paper-based applications, as well as insufficient staffing and incomplete application submissions, lawmakers said.

Although the Congress members acknowledged OPM’s work already underway to try to improve retirement services, they asked the agency for more information. They said they want to know OPM’s plans to handle an increasing caseload, streamline the review process and cut down the number of incomplete applications. They also asked OPM for its timeline to expand early modernization initiatives on a larger scale.

OPM spokesperson Viet Tran told Federal News Network the agency has received the letter and is working on a response.

Congress members and NARFE officials both regularly hear from federal employees about difficult, drawn-out experiences with OPM’s retirement services. And the issues are broader than just the processing of initial retirement applications, said John Hatton, NARFE’s staff vice president for policy and programs.

“It’s the inability to connect to resolve issues and obtain updates on processing, which includes problems or delays with other transactions as well — survivor annuity applications, adjustments to annuities after the death of a spouse [and] changes in health insurance enrollment,” Hatton said in an email to Federal News Network.

Those who try to contact OPM’s retirement services center often face long wait times as well. It takes 32 minutes on average for a call to be answered, although it’s unclear if the statistic accounts for unanswered calls.

“NARFE members have expressed consistent frustration with OPM RS, with attempts to receive basic information or status updates going unanswered,” Apter said. “These service issues compound with existing application delays to worsen the overall customer experience.”

OPM Chief Information Officer Guy Cavallo has also said that retirement services is the one department in OPM with the single-most legacy technology of the entire agency.

“Right now, when somebody decides to retire, they turn in paperwork to their own agency, and it gets processed there before it comes over to OPM,” Cavallo told Federal News Network in January. “That could take weeks or even months before it gets to OPM, but they think that OPM already has it.”

OPM said it is taking steps to try to modernize the federal retirement process. Currently, OPM is hammering out the next version of its online retirement application. The RS update, coming later this year, will include an annuity calculator, a chat bot to answer simple questions, acceptance of electronic signatures and other self-service tools aiming to reduce the backlog of retirement requests.

“As part of this effort, OPM is working to update the retirement services IT roadmap to outline the critical steps necessary to achieve full digitization,” Tran said.

But digitizing retirement services “will be a long-term effort for OPM,” Tran added.

To reduce the inventory and modernize the system overall, many agreed that more funding for OPM is necessary.

“One of the most critical challenges to achieving this goal is the need for sustained funding so OPM can execute the roadmap,” Tran said.

“OPM needs resources to continue its modernization efforts, like expanding its recent online retirement application and digital case management,” Apter said.

OPM asked Congress for roughly $152 million for the RS division in its fiscal 2024 budget request. The agency also requested $15.8 million to fund overall IT modernization initiatives.

The end goal is to “enhance the retirement services customer experience by providing timely, accurate and responsive service that addresses the diverse needs of OPM’s customers,” OPM said in its budget justification.

Additionally, OPM’s fiscal 2024 budget request asked Congress for funding to hire 91 new employees in its retirement processing division. Apter said adding this many new employees would likely let OPM address retirement backlogs.

“We are working diligently to enhance staffing to increase capacity, further improve productivity, increase information available online so retirees can easily answers to simple and common questions and increase proactive communications from OPM customers regarding the status of their applications,” Tran said.

By fiscal 2026, one of OPM’s goals is to improve its retirement services customer satisfaction score to 4.2 out of 5. In the fourth quarter of fiscal 2021, the score was 3.75 out of 5.

“OPM remains committed to helping federal retirees transition from serving the American public to enjoying their hard-earned retirement,” Tran said. “OPM continues to prioritize investments and improvements within retirement services to ensure federal retirees and their families get the information and assistance they need during this important transition in their lives.”


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