Railroad Retirement Board spikes its folders

Railroad Retirement Board spikes its folders

Document imaging could save the agency $10 million over seven years

By Drew Robb

Special to GCN

Until recently, the Railroad Retirement Board serviced its 1.3 million claim folders from off-site storage under a contract with the National Archives and Records Administration's Federal Records Center in Suitland, Md.

Each year, the board made up about 12,000 new folders and extracted about 150,000 files from the claim bank for adjustments or inquiries. The vast paper system meant long delays, and costs mushroomed.

'We were billed for each folder retrieved or refiled, for messenger service and per square foot,' said Ken Zoll, the chief of systems and technology development. 'It became exceedingly expensive, cumbersome and time-consuming.'

Now at the halfway point of an ambitious workflow and document imaging plan, the Railroad Retirement Board is well on its way to a paperless environment that could save up to $10 million over a planned seven-year lifecycle.

The independent board administers retirement, survivor, unemployment and sickness benefit programs for the nation's railroad workers and their families. Last year it paid $8.1 billion in retirement and survivor benefits to 670,000 beneficiaries plus $70 million in unemployment and sickness benefits to 49,000 claimants.

Faced with escalating costs and outdated document hardware, the board searched for a way to convert a million pages of images and allow for growth. The new system would need to have an interface with that of the Social Security Administration, which exchanges significant amounts of information with the board.

GTE Government Systems Corp. of Needham Heights, Mass., conducted a feasibility study on document imaging. 'We concluded that an imaging and workflow system would significantly improve our operations,' Zoll said.


The Railroad Retirement Board's Web site, at www.rrb.gov, will make beneficiaries' records securely available by this fall via Web Connector software, an imaging system from Eastman Kodak Co.


Decisions made

The board called on KPMG Consulting of Mountain View, Calif., to determine the most cost-effective and efficient design, as well as the best implementation methods. After considering many options, the agency selected products from Eastman Software Inc. of Billerica, Mass., which last year tapped Vredenburg Information Technology Group of Reston, Va., to sell and support its products in the federal market. In September 1998, the board bought the first 50-seat software license and supporting hardware to begin converting unemployment and sickness documents from the old imaging database.

The new workflow and imaging system uses Kodak 3500 scanners from Eastman Kodak Co., a Hewlett-Packard SureStore 80-EX optical jukebox and high-end workstations with 21-inch, high-resolution Hitachi Visual Technologies Division monitors. The workstations run Microsoft SQL Server under Microsoft Windows NT.

'We focused on out-of-the-box technology to minimize upgrades,' Zoll said.

In July, the unemployment and sickness benefit system went online for current cases. Conversion of six years' worth of documentation from the old system was completed in October.

'Now we can move and handle documents far more quickly and accurately,' Zoll said. Reporting capabilities also improved. The board's old mainframe system had treated reports as an overnight batch process; now supervisors can submit queries and receive immediate feedback at their desks. They customize reports without any Cobol coding.

'As we downsize, the Eastman/Vredenburg system has let us maintain the level of service we had before,' Zoll said. 'We have maintained performance at the same or a higher level with 10 percent fewer people.'

All board personnel now use the system for day-to-day case management without shuffling paper.

Once the unemployment and sickness benefit system was up and running, the board shifted focus to the retirement folders. Every month it issues retirement and survivor checks to 772,000 people while maintaining records for 250,000 active employees.

To cope with the workload, the board bought another 150-seat user license from Eastman/Vredenburg to begin imaging the retirement and survivor documents. The board also installed more scanners, servers and jukeboxes.

'The elimination of file storage and retrieval charges has cut costs substantially, but we expect to see the biggest savings in salary reduction,' Zoll said. 'Within the seven-year lifecycle, we are projecting savings of $10 million.' He estimated that more than 40 full-time positions could be eliminated once the system is fully operational.

Little by little

The board is about to begin imaging the first retirement and survivor documents, taking up one process at a time to minimize disruption. A total of seven processes will be introduced at six-week intervals. By the end of this year, the board will no longer create paper claim folders.

In contrast to the unemployment and sickness benefit project, however, not all of the retirement and survivor back folders will be imaged. Instead, some will stay in storage at NARA. When a folder that is not part of the imaging system is requested, it will be retrieved from NARA, scanned and destroyed. That way, examiners will not have to deal with paper folders.

For this phase, the agency has added new workstations to speed processing and has installed the latest version of Eastman's imaging and workflow software for remote management from a central server.

The agency is about to begin beta-testing Eastman's Web Connector software. By fall, Zoll said, the imaging system will be tied to a Web site so that beneficiaries can view their documents securely over the Internet.

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