John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said his staff is putting a stop to $487 million of the $601 million improperly paid in the past five years to dead federal annuitants, and he is pledging to quickly chase down the rest of the money.

“We’re hard at work on it,” Berry said in an interview. “It does require a vigorous effort.”

A report released last week by the agency’s inspector general revealed that the OPM improperly distributed $100 million to $150 million in pensions and annuities in each of the past five years to families of federal employees who had died.

The government pays out $5.5 billion a month in retirement benefits to federal workers, Berry said.

“There are bad people in the world who will commit fraud, and any program that is administering more than $5 billion a month in benefits needs strong controls,” he added.

The payments have been made since at least 2005, when Inspector General Patrick E. McFarland issued the first of three audits that urged the OPM to track its mistakes more closely.

Berry said he is working “closely” with McFarland’s staff and has set up better controls to make sure payments are legitimate. He said $113 million still needs to be resolved. He has assigned four members of his senior staff to deal with the issue.

The OPM estimated Monday that it has collected more than $438 million of the $487 million resolved over the past five years. The OPM will continue collection efforts on the $113 million “until it is completely resolved,” the agency said in a statement.

Overall, the federal government improperly paid out $125 billion in fiscal 2010 — a $15 billion year-to-year increase due to a growing number of unemployment insurance and Medicaid payments. Despite the jump, federal agencies also recovered about $687 million mistakenly paid to delinquent government contractors and beneficiaries, according to the White House.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Further reading:

Report: Dead federal retirees paid $120 million yearly

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