Federal Judge Orders Hawaii To Continue Critical Health Services For Pacific Migrants

Federal judge orders Hawaii to continue critical health services for Pacific migrants

By Mark Niesse
The Associated Press, September 1, 2009

Honolulu (AP) — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Hawaii's government must continue providing lifesaving dialysis and chemotherapy treatments to Pacific island migrants suffering from kidney disease and cancer.

U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright granted a temporary restraining order preventing the state from instituting a new, limited health insurance program intended to save $15 million. The new health program was scheduled to start Tuesday.

His decision came as a relief to migrants from Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands who argue the United States and the state weren't living up to a health obligation promised after U.S. nuclear weapons tests in Pacific islands a half-century ago.

The ruling keeps in place broad health coverage for dialysis, chemotherapy, prescription drugs and doctor visits.

'I'm very happy,' said Philip Anungar, a Marshall Islands migrant with diabetes who attended the court hearing. 'The judge's decision means we'll go back to what we had before.'

Migrants from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau are beneficiaries of the Compact of Free Association, a deal with the U.S. government providing financial assistance in exchange for defense rights.

'The ruling is a tremendous improvement over what the state was planning to do,' said the migrants' attorney, Paul Alston. 'They're going to get a lot more benefits.'

Hawaii government officials declined to comment following the hearing. Department of Human Services Director Lillian Koller will review the restraining order with state attorneys Wednesday, said a spokeswoman for the department.

The cash-strapped state, facing a steep budget deficit, wanted to switch about 7,000 legal migrants to the new health insurance program. About 100 of them receive dialysis treatments paid by the state.

The state announced Monday it had found $1.5 million in annual federal Medicaid funding that would continue dialysis coverage for two more years, but chemotherapy and many name-brand prescription drugs were not included.

Seabright prevented the new plan, called Basic Health Hawaii, from taking effect because its implementation may have violated due process rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

Basic Health Hawaii was announced less than a month ago and without public hearings. Because many of the migrants don't speak English as their first language, they weren't able to understand how their coverage would change when they received notification letters or called an English-speaking automated phone help line.

'It appears the state made a unilateral decision to decrease benefits with little or no notice,' Seabright said.

Seabright didn't decide whether the new plan violated constitutional guarantees of equal rights for all legal U.S. residents.

A hearing on a more permanent injunction will be held Oct. 19.