The nominee to be the next director of the Office of Personnel Management faced tough questions yesterday about her experience in managing large health care programs.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee members wanted to know how Katherine Archuleta would implement OPM’s part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and handle other issues related to managing the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP).
Archuleta, the former chief of staff at the Labor and Transportation departments, said she’d manage OPM’s role in the ACA like she’s managed any other program: by depending on and, if necessary, bringing in qualified people to advise her.
“OPM has on board right now the experts in healthcare implementation, and the long experience that OPM has in implementing healthcare is one that I will rely on as the leader of OPM if I am confirmed,” Archuleta said. “My experience is one in which I will utilize the experiences I have had as a leader of major institutions, working with mayors, secretaries and would utilize the teams I have put in place to bring that expertise to OPM.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said in response to Archuleta’s description of her qualifications, “So, I kind of read between the lines here. You don’t have the experience in healthcare, but you believe you can put together a team that does have it. I would suggest this is probably your biggest challenge.”
That exchange with Portman was probably the toughest set of questions Archuleta faced throughout the mostly hospitable hearing.
By the end of the day, committee members expressed support for her nomination, and Archuleta appeared to be on track to be approved. She would replace John Berry, who served four years as OPM director. He left in April, and President Barack Obama has nominated Berry to be ambassador to Australia.
Multi-state exchanges deadline coming
Portman and other lawmakers pressed Archuleta several different times on the ACA, but mostly areas that would be out of her control as OPM director, such as if federal employees should move off the FEHBP and onto the healthcare exchanges, and whether members of Congress and just their personal staff or all staff members have to obtain insurance through the exchanges.
Under the ACA, OPM must create a multi-state plan by contracting with private health insurance issuers. The plan must offer at least two providers in each state through the Health Insurance Marketplace that are available to eligible individuals and small businesses.
The status of that effort came up several times during the hearing. Archuleta said OPM has been working on the multi-state plan piece of the ACA for about two years. During her briefings in preparation for the hearing, all signs point to the agency making the Oct. 1 deadline.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking member of the committee, said OPM has yet to publish the rules that would affect members of Congress and their staffs in moving off of FEHBP and to the health exchanges. He wanted to know if Archuleta knew the status of those rules and whether they had come back from the Office of Management and Budget. Archuleta said she hadn’t been briefed on where the rules are in the process.
New IT plan in 100 days
One area where Archuleta was more sure of was how she would improve OPM’s technology, especially around modernizing the retirement claims system and reducing the backlog.
She would be at least the fourth OPM director to try her hand at this long- standing problem — a challenge she recognizes upfront.
“I will also prioritize the improvement of the agency’s IT systems. In past attempts to transition retirement services into a digital system, OPM fell short,” she said. “[I will] identify new IT leadership, using existing agency expertise and seeking advice from experts inside government and the private sector, I believe OPM can successfully update its IT systems. If confirmed by the Senate, I will work with my senior management team to create a plan within 100 days of assuming office on modernizing IT at OPM. I will add a chief technology officer position specifically focused on assessing and improving the technology products OPM uses.”
Previous Director Berry decided to throw people at the problem of reducing the backlog and improve the IT systems in small segments.
OPM has found moderate success in reducing the claims backlog. It’s unclear how much progress it has made on the technology side.
Coburn said Archuleta wants to put the new CTO on an equal footing as the agency’s chief information officer. At the hearing, he warned Archuleta about that set up.
“You have a CIO who is responsible for the information. Technology is the way you get it. But it is the tool. I would caution you to think long and hard that the CTO be brought under the CIO,” he said. “The reason you want a technology officer is for the information. You don’t want the information officer to have technology. You want that in reverse. Where we’ve seen that work in other agencies, it’s been highly effective. Where we’ve seen it done like you are suggesting, it’s not as effective.”
Other committee members also were concerned about the backlog. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said OPM processed 25 percent fewer claims in June than it planned to process. He asked Archuleta how she would ensure OPM meets and exceeds its goals.
“The most important part of my leadership style is to hold individuals accountable and to hold all individuals responsible for the mission of the agency,” she said. “It’s one that has been successful for me over the last 35 years.”
Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.) asked why can’t OPM give annuitants full payment on the front end instead of receiving 50 to 60 percent of their total pension until OPM finalizes the claim? Tester said if the initial amount is too much, the retired federal employee would have to pay the money back later.
Archuleta said she would be happy to look into Tester’s suggestion, but the key is for the retiree’s last agency to put together all the information before sending it to OPM for final processing. OPM has been working with agencies to improve that process.