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OPM announces steps to get full pensions to new retirees sooner

Apr. 20, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Bill Zielinski is OPM's associate director of retirement services.
Bill Zielinski is OPM's associate director of retirement services. (OPM)

The Office of Personnel Management today said it will increase interim pensions for many new retirees to nearly the full amount they are owed.

Bill Zielinski, OPM's associate director of retirement services, said that by mid-June, the agency will use the initial pension estimates set by the employing agencies to determine most retirees' interim annuities.

The problem of incomplete annuity payments has plagued OPM for years and angered tens of thousands of federal retirees. The agency takes months to process pensions for new retirees, and in the meantime, some receive interim payments amounting to half of what they are owed, or less. Affected retirees say being shortchanged for so long causes enormous financial strain, and many must dip into savings or withdraw funds from retirement accounts such as the Thrift Savings Plan while OPM straightens out their pensions.

OPM spent recent months checking new retirees' pension estimates calculated by their employing agencies. It found that those estimates were very close to OPM's own estimates.

"We think we are receiving good quality estimates from agencies," Zielinski said in a conference call with reporters.

In response to a Federal Times story last October detailing the problem of incomplete annuities for new retirees, OPM Director John Berry ordered Zielinski to increase interim payments to as close to the full amount as possible. Zielinski hoped those changes would be in place by the end of December.

OPM has missed that deadline, but Zielinski cited these signs of progress:

OPM now takes 117 days to finish processing a claim. Last October, it took 138 days.

While the backlog of unfinished claims has grown since last fall from about 38,000 to 43,000, much of that is due to the large number of retirements OPM traditionally receives during the first quarter of each calendar year. More than 70 percent of the current claims are less than 90 days old.

"The balance we're looking at is really a much healthier balance," Zielinski said.

OPM is now identifying retirees who are receiving pensions that are vastly less than what they are owed and assigning them priority.

"We do understand that this can very much cause a hardship for folks," Zielinski said. "I think we're making progress."

OPM hired 40 new claims examiners to help process cases in February. They still need about two more months of training before they can start working.

Zielinski also said OPM this summer will expand access to online accounts to retirees with pending claims. Currently, only retirees whose claims have been finalized can access their online accounts.

This will allow retirees to check the status of their claims, find out the name and contact information of the specialist working on their case, and print out verification letters that can be used as proof to creditors that they will eventually receive a bigger pension. Many retirees have written to Federal Times in recent months complaining that they cannot receive that information from OPM.

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