NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

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March 24, 2014

Retirees' paperwork, stuck in a mine, points to government's balky IT problems

(Continued)

BOYERS, Pa. —

In many places, however, these federal systems still don't work well. Some of the explanation can be found here, in this baroque underground bureaucracy.

Over the past 30 years, administrations have spent more than $100 million trying to automate the old-fashioned process in the mine and make it run at the speed of computers.

They couldn't.

So now the mine continues to run at the speed of human fingers and feet. That failure imposes costs on federal retirees, who have to wait months for their full benefit checks. And it has imposed costs on the taxpayer: The Obama administration has now made the mine run faster, but mainly by paying for more fingers and feet.

The staff working in the mine has increased by at least 200 people in the past five years. And the cost of processing each claim has increased from $82 to $108, as total spending on the retirement system reached $55.8 million.

In a statement issued Saturday, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta said: "I do not believe that the current level of service is acceptable." She added that modernizing the system is a priority for her.

In an interview inside the mine this month, another federal official called the operation "very successful."

But that official balked when asked if it was modern. "What does 'modern' mean?" the official said. The OPM allowed a reporter in the mine on the condition that interviews with some officials there would not be conducted on the record.

This is how the mine works:

Step 1 begins when a federal employee submits retirement paperwork to his or her own agency. That happens at least 100,000 times a year. Within a few days, the government starts sending "interim payments" to the retirees — checks worth about 80 percent of their full pensions. This is meant to tide them over while the mine works on the case.

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