The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: AARP Hawaii State Director Kealii Lopez - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters spoke with the state director of Hawaii AARP on Wednesday. Kealii Lopez talked about how Hawaii is not prepared to take care of its rapidly growing elder population but also discussed legislation and ideas that can help mitigate the crisis. This interview has been edited for length and clarity and to remove material we plan to use in other stories.

AARP Hawaii has a membership of about 140,000 older adults here in Hawaii. Our primary mission is to work at finding ways to advocate and ensure people can age the way they’d like to. Many of our members have indicated they’d like to age in their own homes. They have concerns around their long-term security. Their interests vary from wide-ranging things such as cybersecurity issues, concerns about fraud, but also just how to take good care of themselves and be healthy as they get older.

One of the things that we’re very engaged in, and folks don’t realize, is that AARP is very involved in advocacy, whether it’s at the federal level or the state level. That’s probably one of the primary things that we engage in. We do have a lot of events that we call “fun and fulfillment,” and those are ways to just give people an opportunity, especially during the pandemic, to kind of not be alone. Social isolation is a concern. And so we get involved in so many issues, whether at this point related to affordable housing issues, related to disaster preparedness — just the broad range of areas that touch the lives of kupuna.

Prior to coming to AARP, you also led the Democratic Party of Hawaii for a spell. You were also running Olelo, Community Media and also the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, right?

Yes. So after I was the president and CEO of Olelo, Community Media for about seven years, I left a job I loved to join Gov. (Neil) Abercrombie’s Cabinet to serve as the director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs then also became a paid lobbyist, which some in the Democratic Party weren’t excited about their chair being a paid lobbyist. But I was the chair of the Democratic Party for a while and had to step down from that position when I became the state director for AARP because we are a nonpartisan organization.

Let’s spend the first part of this interview with the editorial board talking about this retirement security bill, Senate Bill 3289. Tell us what this bill will do.

What this bill will do is make it a whole lot easier for over 200,000 workers here in Hawaii to be able to save for retirement out of their paychecks. Right now a good number of them do not have a way to save at all through their employer. And many of those folks happen to work for small businesses. What we have found through surveys is that many of the small businesses can’t afford to provide a 401k type of program to their employees. But the other thing is the financial liability that they take on for managing a program.

graf on estimate of Hawaii seniors income projection

This program has been proven to be very successful. Oregon, California and Illinois have programs up and running and have had them running for quite some time. I think the key there is folks should be able to go out on their own and save. Some of us do it. Well, the truth is, only one in 20 people will go out on their own to save for retirement, and that’s been a constant for the last 40 years. That has not changed.

And so other people might say, gosh, why should I care about people being able to save for retirement? Well, the truth of the matter is, I think we all want what’s best for everyone else, that when they get older they have the resources they need to be independent, to be able to live at home, to be able to not worry about whether a crisis is going to result in them having to no longer be able to maintain their family home. So it really allows people to have access to that.

The other thing it does is it gives these small businesses who want to provide a retirement savings for their employees the ability to do that. So we surveyed about 300 small businesses here in Hawaii, 80% of them said if given the opportunity, they absolutely would provide access to this retirement savings program to their employees. Again, the reason they haven’t is it’s very costly as well as it’s complex.

This could potentially affect 200,000 workers in the state of Hawaii. Is that figure accurate?

Yes. It’s actually over 200,000 workers in Hawaii — but it’s also their families. When somebody retires, in some ways, they’re not doing that on their own. And so it really is a matter of how prepared your mom and dad are for retirement. It does make a difference for us folks who are going to be around when they do that — let’s hope they’re able to enjoy it.

And the key piece I think that people don’t realize is that even for those of us who have retirement savings, the tax burden of not having 200,000-plus people — and more because that’s just right now — save for retirement is huge. We’re talking about $1.7 billion over a 20-year period of what the tax burden could potentially be in social services.

What this bill will do is make it a whole lot easier for over 200,000 workers here in Hawaii to be able to save for retirement out of their paychecks right now.

We know now there’s legislation at the Capitol designed to create affordable rentals for kupuna that are 62 and older. AARP was very involved in food security issues for kupuna during the pandemic, served about 1.2 million meals in 2020 for kupuna, and that was here on Oahu. AARP didn’t do it, but we were involved in the process. But even the degree to which you have kupuna that are on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). We’re not saying that, you know, immediately this program will help those individuals. But the point of the matter is if people can save now and save over the next 20 to 30 years, that’s going to be significantly better for them, better for their families and better for the state. And to us, it’s a common-sense thing. Having people save is a good thing.

This would set up a payroll deduction system that the state would handle. Is that right?

So they wouldn’t handle it. It would be kind of attached to the Department of Budget and Finance, but it would actually be managed by two contractors. One would be one that actually handles the administration of those accounts, meaning signing people up, keeping track of that. These are people who probably start a job, stop a job, start a job, stop a job or have multiple employers that might be paying into the program. So that’s the administrative side.

And then they would also be contracting with financial companies, one or two that would then be managing the investments of those individual accounts — and they are individual accounts. These are individual Roth IRA accounts for each individual. And the bill calls for there to be a board to oversee that program. So the state itself is really more an administrative-attached function, not necessarily directly managing. They’re definitely not managing the accounts specifically.

Contracts would go out to bid, then. I saw a dollar figure for fiscal year 2022-23 of about $820,000. Does that sound about right?

Yes, and that’s at the most. That’s what it would cost. Some states have entered into collaborations or are looking to enter into collaborations where — I think Colorado and New Mexico, as an example — they pool their employees and bring those investments together. That’s a possibility, and the bill allows for the board to look at that as an option — again, primarily around keeping the cost of the program lower, but also the degree to which that might allow for the program to be up and running and self-sustaining.

Kealii Lopez, executive director of AARP Hawaii, talks to the Civil Beat Editorial Board, Feb. 16, 2022.
Kealii Lopez, state director of AARP Hawaii, spoke to the Civil Beat Editorial Board on Wednesday. Screenshot/2022

So the other key piece to keep in mind is, yes, it will cost. We’re estimating over a seven-year period it would cost about $5 million to manage and to fund that program. But about year seven it would become self-sustaining. And again, the important piece there is our point that $5 million over a seven-year period to save $1.7 billion dollars is not a bad investment.

The state government doesn’t have the best history when it comes to managing contracts, particularly when technology is involved. How do you respond to that?

The benefit we have is we’re not going first, right? Other states have already demonstrated how it can be done. They all have the experience. I think it’s key.

And we’re very understanding and the Department of Budget and Finance I think also understands this is to streamline. It’s got to be very simple and easy for people to understand what they’re doing.

And again, the other piece that’s important is financial literacy. That as people begin to start saving, the issue of financial literacy becomes an important component, so that’s also a requirement within the bill. The hope is that once people start saving, they recognize how to some degree it’s easy. You know, when it’s taken out of your paycheck and you don’t see it, people are 15 times more likely to save when the funds are taken out of their paycheck. When I was the director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, 6% got taken off the top. But that 6% automatically gets taken out of your paycheck and you adjust and see how you’re able to make ends meet with the payroll you have. The other thing is people can opt out.

AARP survey of small biz owners grad

One of the concerns we hear is that people are too poor to save. I think that’s very, very patronizing and the degree to which people can make that decision and say, “You know what, I don’t want to either have that much deducted from my payroll or I don’t want to participate now and I want to participate later.” Or, geez, you know what? “I took a look at it and I can actually increase that deduction,” so putting the power of those decisions with the people who are looking to save for retirement is important.

The other thing, in talking to some of the labor unions out there, many of them have retirement programs, it’s really the degree to which people who may have retirement programs, many of them their children and grandchildren, don’t have access to retirement savings.

You’ve been trying for six years to get this thing passed. What’s different this time around? You got the Retail Merchants of Hawaii saying, we support the intent, but look, we’re going to deal with a minimum wage increase here. We’re just coming back from Covid. The Tax Foundation of Hawaii just doesn’t think it’s necessary. No surprise the American Council of Life Insurers says it’s unnecessary as well. People can get IRAs and 401ks already. What’s going to change lawmakers’ minds this year to make this actually happen?

I think one of the things that will change their mind is that there was a task force last year. Up until this point, AARP had been advocating for legislation again based on seeing the success in other states. But often when we’re talking to legislators, they’re like, sure, that might be great for Oregon, but how do we know what’s going to work for Hawaii?

We supported the task force resolution for last year and didn’t attempt to try to get the bill passed and said, fine, we’ll do it your way. We’ll go through the task force, will jump through all the hoops and show and demonstrate that in fact, yes, this is this commonsense, really straightforward (plan). Helping people save is a good thing.

The challenge is we have an outward migration of a lot of our moderate income families who are deciding to go where it’s easier to care for their family.

Again, I think about laborers. Their piece is the right to work. What we’re talking about here is people’s right to save, save for their future and their retirement. And despite what those who are opposed to the legislation say, their interest in maintaining the status quo only benefits their organizations — to push their agenda and keep 200,000-plus individuals from being able to save for the future? I have respect for them, but to me it’s — I can’t think of another word other than shameful.

I wanted to ask about elder abuse, specifically elder financial abuse, which has been on the rise everywhere since before the pandemic. And I wondered if you have a sense whether during the pandemic, when people were isolated in their homes and maybe didn’t have relatives who could come in and check on them and so forth, that kind of thing has been on the rise. And what forms is it taking?

The forms of elder abuse can be neglect, can be outright financial exploitation — it can take multiple forms. I do know that some of the challenges for some of the nursing home facilities really have been the challenges of not being able to have family members come in. I know when my mother was in Hale Nani (Rehabilitation and Nursing Center), as much as we were allowed to be there, we tried to be there with my mother, 24/7.

Not to say those facilities don’t have some responsibility for what transpired. They absolutely do. And yet we have to recognize the workforce issue. So on that issue specifically, we’re extremely concerned about workforce and the degree to which there are insufficient staff to help in these facilities.

The other is it’s possible that people who have been working and are out of work now and maybe were able to take their loved one — their mom, dad, whatever — to a daycare facility to get some respite. That was not possible during the pandemic. And could that contribute to potential situations? Possibly.

And then on the issue of financial abuse, that is an area that we definitely want to expand in our own advocacy and education of older adults about what they can and need to do to protect themselves, because in the end that’s going to be key. When you’re on the phone with someone, you’re on your computer, you’re the one that’s really at ground zero with that potential, with that person who’s wanting to take advantage of you. And again, that can come in many different forms. A family member, somebody you know, that works with you — those who make a career out of taking advantage of folks. And that’s why we’ve supported legislation that has made it a higher level of criminal charge for anyone who does take advantage of someone who is 62 and older. I think the key there is really, more needs to be done. And I think hopefully, it’s the state Legislature or even Congress looking at ways to address this issue in a more significant way.

One thing I’m thinking about is that I know in some places there have been laws passed that require, for instance, banks to take a more active role in reporting financial elder abuse because somebody comes in with the elder who hasn’t been with them before, and all of a sudden they’re taking out all sorts of money or they notice things in their account that are not normal. Is that something that you’ve heard talked about here at all?

Yes. There are already statutes related to what banks and financial institutions can do with regards to situations where, you know, someone who regularly comes in all of a sudden wants to withdraw $20,000 or even $5,000 from their account. And it’s something they haven’t normally done. They’re able to ask questions and inquire. They can’t necessarily keep that person from receiving those funds, but what they can do and where things I think need to be worked out is then how that financial institution has to report that potential activity and to whom, whether it’s the police department or the Department of Human Services. Those things are what I’ve heard still need to be worked out.

We’ve also been, like everybody else, doing a lot of reporting on the problems with the lack of affordable housing and how it’s getting worse. I wonder if you could talk to us a little bit about your advocacy and any legislation to provide and to help kupuna with that. And if there’s any increase in kupuna homelessness because of this?

We do have data that AARP tracks nationally and it projects the potential increase in homelessness among older adults, and it’s expected to, between this year and next year, double. And part of that has to do with the issue of affordable rentals and the degree to which many kupuna are having a difficult time. There’s a bill that AARP is supporting that specifically increases funds to support kupuna with regards to affordable rentals. And it’s a pilot project, by the way. The legislation calls for the rent to be no more than 50% of the individual’s income. We’re suggesting that it actually be more like 30% of the individual’s income because, again, we’re looking at a range of very low income to moderate income. So we wanted to make sure that lower end folks were in there.

In general related to affordable housing, it’s a new area that we’re getting involved in. A big part of what we’re doing is trying to educate ourselves on the fly, but really relying on many of the other organizations that have been at this for such a long time, like Catholic Charities and others. So we’re looking at affordable housing in general. But keep in mind, for AARP our membership are older adults, but we really believe that our advocacy that benefits everyone is something that we look to. So although we support the kupuna bill, we’re supporting other affordable housing issues in general to try to advance that particular concern. Because again, one of the things that we’re clear on is people want to age in their homes. That’s a little bit difficult when you don’t have one.

So you brought up a couple of times that seniors desire to age in place in their homes, and that’s certainly been a trend nationally. But what I’m wondering about is the dangers of that in the sense that it seems like people don’t want to go to nursing homes. And instead, a lot of folks, I think, end up in sort of small scale like boarding care type of operations.  I wonder if you think that they are adequately overseen by the state. Is there enough inspection of these types of places?

Oh, you’re catching me on a challenging issue. Thank you very much. I want to share with you why AARP during the pandemic, actually, for once was advocating for these small operations. Because yes, we would absolutely be on the side of concerns that the Department of Health may or may not be adequately providing oversight and regulatory inspections of these facilities.

The reason we got heavily involved, though, I want you to understand, is where the skilled nursing facilities in Hawaii may have, say, 400-plus beds across the state where people are housed in these large operations. It’s about 1,200 beds. But there’s more than double the number of residents in these small what you call six-pack homes, but the adult residential care homes are those smaller homes. There are also foster family and community care homes. And so what we’ve realized was that there are more people being cared for in these smaller facilities than there are in these larger facilities.

You have a lot of people in one location, which is why during the pandemic, you had such significant issues related to the numbers of Covid cases in those facilities. But what we found was that there was little to no support provided to these smaller care homes to prepare for how to deal with Covid. And so that meant a lot of residents throughout the state were not getting the benefit of CDC CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) guidance.

I think that we need to call attention to the fact that Hawaii is poorly prepared for the future of its aging population.

So AARP worked with others to actually come up with protocols for these small operations so that they understood what to do if they had a Covid case, how to recognize it, how to prevent it, but also ensuring that those residents in those homes were on par with those that are in a hospital, in the nursing homes, to get vaccinated right away. Because originally the state had it planned for them to get vaccinated when the rest of the population was getting vaccinated.

Again, I’m just trying to share that there isn’t really, in my mind, a holistic approach and a holistic view within the Department of Health on how to integrate and see how all it’s somewhat of an ecosystem with these larger facilities and the smaller facilities. And the truth of the matter is it’s a matter of what people can afford, right? So these smaller adult residential care homes aren’t as costly, you know, maybe $5,000 a month compared to $10,000 a month. And, you know, long-term care in and of itself is extremely expensive.

So to get back to my workforce point for these skilled homes. Many of these mom and pop shops or six-packs or whatever you are going to call them, they’re retiring and their children don’t want to take it on. And so you’re going to have fewer and fewer options for people who don’t have anywhere to go. So that’s an area that we want to begin focusing on for AARP and hope to actually convene folks sometime this year to begin looking at that issue.

Dr. (Andrew) Mason’s report shows the significant number of older adults we’re going to have in Hawaii and the reduction of those younger people. In my mind, I don’t want to freak people out, but I see a very huge crisis on our hands. And again, getting people to save is going to be critical. That’s just one part of the overall solution. Affordable housing is part of that workforce development in addressing the cost of long-term care. It’s a really big picture.

How many adult residential care homes are there or people in them?

There’s about 1,200 of them located throughout the state. There’s 47 large skilled nursing homes. I would say the number of residents in those homes are twice as many as in the skilled nursing homes. But that’s why we became very concerned and interested in these organizations and operations and really in many ways begin working with them and providing webinars. We partnered with the John A. Burns School of Medicine to conduct webinars for these residential care homes and community foster family care homes. And keep in mind, you also have people who have cognitive or other disabilities who are also in these types of homes.

AARP family caregiver data by state

The other thing I would just want to add is the amount of savings caregivers provide to the state as well. So one of the things that we also have some data on is how much those individuals actually care for their family members. It actually is a savings to the state because the state’s not having to carry that burden. And I’m not saying it should. In my case, my mother is going to be 84 years old. She fell and hurt her back and is wheelchair bound. She had a stroke. Well, we’re lucky she’s able to remain at home, and about five of us family members have coordinated so that we’re able to care for her 24/7 and she is able to age in her home. Again, not everyone has a family that can do that. She’s lucky that my father’s pension and Social Security allow her to be able to stay at home. So there’s a lot of other issues that relate to the issue of people being able to remain in their homes. And a big part of that are family members who are caregivers.

Are people aging in certain places, certain islands, disproportionately?

Not so much. The aging difference per se is not significant, at least not statistically significant. But what we do see is that the neighbor islands have fewer options. And what I mean by that is there aren’t as many care homes or as many adult residential care facilities, and many of them actually have waitlists. So that’s one of the reasons we’re especially wanting to get attention to this. There are waitlists, if not a year-plus long to get into facilities.

AARP is supporting legislation to fund a long-term care ombudsmen program. I remember seeing that one for four years, actually. I think we’re the only state that has this few long-term care ombudsmen per capita, right?

Exactly. Normally the best practice is you have one long-term care ombudsmen per 2,000 residents, which means what you should actually have in Hawaii is six. And we’ve had one for the longest time with some great volunteer ombudsmen. But that legislation, that’s a really important one. There’s at least funding for it and hopefully understanding having seen what happened during the pandemic, whether it’s the closure of facilities or other situations. What you would have is the long-term care ombudsman would be at these facilities much more frequently to address residents’ and their families’ concerns than you might have with the inspectors. And I think that’s an additional resource to those inspectors to have another state agency that is helping look out for people.

I was a little surprised to read the Executive Office of Aging statistics about how the population aged 85 and older will grow very rapidly, particularly as we approach 2035, and we talk about a fiscal cliff that we might be facing with not enough people in the workforce to support this growing aging population. Is Hawaii prepared for what’s coming?

No, we are not prepared at all. And I think that’s partly because — not so much siloed in departments — but in how people are looking at it. We hope to be part of changing that, which is you have your health care folks looking at health care. You have those who are doing food delivery, you have those departments that are looking at different issues, affordable housing. It’s all part of the big picture. The challenge is we have an outward migration of a lot of our moderate income families who are deciding to go where it’s easier to care for their family and such. And so you have this outward migration of younger people, and a lot of older folks wanting to stay in Hawaii where they grew up.

DBEDT graf on aging trends Hawaii

And that is continuing. That is going to be a continuing problem, which is why for the life of me I don’t understand why more people haven’t paid attention to Dr. Mason’s study on those issues. And we can probably find other data out there that in the near future, the largest and quickest growing population is going to be those 80 to 100. And Hawaii will be definitely up in that, and we tend to have an older population than other states.

Which leads me to my next question — is this being adequately covered by the media? And by extension, are there things that we should be doing better here at Civil Beat to raise these issues?

We need to call attention to the fact that Hawaii is poorly prepared for the future, and not just related to this tax savings in general. I mean, I definitely think this should be an issue for gubernatorial candidates, around them having understanding of how bad the situation is and what policy issues they’re going to take into consideration and how they’re going to work with the state Legislature to make this happen. The fact is that you can have bills die very easily at the state Legislature when it makes sense. You’ve already done some articles on that.

But the truth of the matter is no one has, I don’t believe, stepped back and said, this is the whole picture. We are definitely in a crisis situation, and I know people are like, oh, the sky is falling, and they pull for these issues. You have legislators who feel like, well, there’s not going to really be any benefit to this retirement savings plan for 20 years. So let’s just keep kicking the can down the road.

Well, we’ve seen what that has done. We’ve seen the numerous decades that Hawaii has not dealt with affordable housing. Well, everyone literally is paying for that now. So I think having people be willing to take bold, strong, unpopular positions to make a difference and have Hawaii really be what Hawaii is about, which is the people. And those folks are leaving. And for me, a young woman growing up here in Hawaii, I want our families to be able to stay here, to be able to survive here, to be able to age well here and not have to be in a situation where Hawaii becomes like everywhere else.


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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

What was that tale about a grasshopper playing while the ant was working and putting some away for the rainy day or winter. Our legislature and past legislatures have never heard the story, or if they have, they joined the grasshopper.

Vandy63 · 7 months ago

Dental care and cheaper meds! Hawaii is always lauded for businesses providing healthy care benefits and such but in actuality, most prefer to keep hours per week less than 20 so no need and this is why people need more than one job. Medicare is a bureaucratic mess as evidenced by all the confusing advertisements by celebrities touting their various plans. My asthma inhaler costs $300

Concernedtaxpayer · 7 months ago

Why can't older people be able to eat and listen? Older people cannot afford needed dental care or hearing aids?

abc · 7 months ago

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