Thursday, October 22, 2009

The good fight

Originally in the Honolulu Weekly:

A local group stands up for Hawai‘i’s most vulnerable residents

Last month, when the state Department of Human Services announced the elimination of certain medical services, such as kidney dialysis and chemotherapy, for about 7,500 Micronesians, Victor Geminiani immediately filed suit to block the cuts.

“If you stop kidney dialysis, you’re dead within seven days,” explains Geminiani, executive director of Lawyers for Equal Justice. “It’s a death sentence.”

Geminiani and his staff successfully petitioned a judge to temporarily halt the benefit reduction. Now, the group is working to make the court order permanent. With only a shoestring budget, Lawyers for Equal Justice has accomplished much since its creation in 2001. It won a $2.3 million settlement on behalf of 3,000 public housing tenants who were overcharged by the state for more than a decade. In 2007, the group scored a landmark victory against the state for denying homeless families the right to keep their children in the same school each time they moved. In that case, the state agreed to change its enrollment procedures and to improve transportation to and from public schools for homeless students. Most recently, Lawyers for Equal Justice filed a class action suit alleging that the state had failed to provide timely and adequate notice to those whose access to health care would change and that the benefit reduction would amount to discrimination against a minority group.

The cuts were mainly directed toward individuals residing in Hawaii under the Compact of Free Association (COFA), a treaty between the U.S. and the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau. Citizens of theses Micronesian states may receive medical treatments in the U.S. as reparation for the harm caused by U.S. nuclear weapons testing on their land. While the federal government subsidizes a portion of the medical coverage, the state foots 90 percent of the bill.

“It’s a battle between federal government and state government with an entire COFA population caught in the middle,” said Geminiani.

The Micronesian case is one of many “impact litigation” cases LEJ handles: class action lawsuits challenging the way public benefits for low-income residents are administered. Geminiani says this country’s promise of equal opportunity and equal protection is sacrosanct to him and that enforcing this Constitutional guarantee in the courtroom is his religion.

“When the government is going after you in a big way, you’ve got to have organizations to stand up for your rights,” he said. “Otherwise, America is premised on a false promise–shibai.”

That is why LEJ is also suing the state for the deplorable conditions at its largest public housing project, Kuhio Park Terrace. Geminiani describes pest-infestation and a lack of basic necessities, such as fire equipment and hot water, in the two 16-story towers. Geminiani says it took the state far too long–months, he claims–to respond to complaints.

“They don’t want to discuss anything,” he said. “They don’t want to do anything. And, most of all, they don’t want to pay for anything. You gotta push, push, push. Finally, when the state gets embarrassed, it’ll do something.”

Now, the state is doing something. Last month, it chose a New Jersey-based company to undertake a $316 million redevelopment of KPT–a one-for-one replacement of public housing units, plus 276 mixed-rental units.

Geminani, however, remains skeptical. Because even when the state takes positive steps toward equal opportunity rights, he focuses on what remains to be done.

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