More than $500,000 in public pension money was paid to dead people in Hawaii over the past five years, according to records a Hawaii non-profit research group has obtained.

The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, headed by Kelii Akina, says at least 134 pensioners continued to receive payments from the state Employee Retirement System after they died.

The conservative nonprofit, which received the information from the state through an open-records request, acknowledges the challenge the state faces in keeping track of when pensioners die and then stopping payments. But the group says the state must do better.

Kelii Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, says the pension overpayments must be curbed.
Kelii Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, says the payments to deceased pensioners and their beneficiaries must be curbed. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

“Our report shows that we are taking money from the living to pay for the dead,” Akina said in a release. “Shining a light on wasteful spending is in the best interest of public pension members and Hawaii’s taxpayers.”

Wes Machida, state finance director and former head of the ERS, told Civil Beat that the state is doing all it can to avoid inadvertently making the extra payments — noting that on average roughly 100 Hawaii pensioners die each month.

The state has hired a consultant to help, and has staff members dedicated to looking through obituaries every day, he said. There’s also a memorandum of agreement with the Health Department in which the ERS send over its files of pensioners and beneficiaries and the department sends back any matches with deceased people.

One challenge is that some pensioners or beneficiaries move to other states or countries. Other times, there are no surviving family members to notify the ERS of the death, Machida said.

Efforts are made to recoup the lost money, particularly in cases of fraud. But even when the payments inadvertently continued to be made, he said, the state tries to get the money back and has a “decent success rate.”

The state pays out a little over $1.1 billion annually to cover 44,000 pensioners and beneficiaries, he said.

Akina said the payments to deceased pensioners must be further curtailed, particularly given Hawaii’s $8.5 billion unfunded liability — among the highest in the country.

“Hawaii’s taxpayers continue to pay this enormous cost as we close the gap on the public pension unfunded liability crisis,” he said.

Read Civil Beat’s Special Report on Hawaii’s multi-billion-dollar pension problem here.

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