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Government waste: 28k file cabinets used to file paper claims by hand

These are 44 file cabinets.  Now picture 28,000 of them.
These are 44 file cabinets. Now picture 28,000 of them.

The United States government rents an abandoned mine in Boyers, Pennsylvania where it holds, on paper, the records of nearly all past and present government employees in over 28,000 filing cabinets. This process has not been changed in decades despite there having been several attempts at reform with a cost totaling over $100 million, which have all proved fruitless.

The Office of Personnel Management is tasked with navigating an archaic system of records to process retiring worker benefit packages. Presently the OPM employs 600 individuals to carry out this task, by hand. The facility, which is 230 feet underground, was formerly used to harvest limestone and is presently owned by the records management corporation Iron Mountain who, among other things, offer storage to Hollywood for original movie reels.

To begin the arduous task of filing a claim retirement paperwork must be mailed directly to the facility, where it is matched up with other paper records already housed in one of eight document storage caves. Rather than have an employee's information on a centralized computer database, it must be dug out by hand. If documents are missing, which would be less likely if all records were digitized, the documents then need to be tracked down and also mailed to the facility. Due to a variety of human filing errors this aspect of the process can, in some cases, drag on for years. When all files are collected to the satisfaction of the OPM, they are then all scanned and digitized to be stored on a computer. Why weren't the files all digitized to begin with? That's a question that has been asked for decades.

Over the last 30 years there have been three attempts to reform this system, to the tune of $100 million and each time these reforms failed. The system that is in place today is the same that was in place before computers were used for record keeping.

On average a retirement claim requires 60 days to process, of which there are 100,000 filed each year. The OPM says this is an accomplishment, as processing times averaged 133 days and 156 days in 2011 and 2012. However in the 1970s it was possible to process a claim with the exact same efficiency there is today. Worse yet the cost of processing each claim has risen from $82 to $108, with the program costing the government $55.8 million a year. This reduction in processing times, however, is not a credit to the system's efficiency but rather because of the Obama administration's mandate to hire 200 extra employees to expedite claims, according to The Washington Post. The only way this system works is through shear force of will, placing the burden of cost on the taxpayer. In fact there are presently 23,500 retirement cases pending review.

At this time there are no plans to change the way retirement benefits are processed by the U.S. government.

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