Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Federal injunction stops State healthcare cuts to COFA residents

From the Hawaii-Independent on December 14, 2010.

Testifiers crowd in at a Department of Human Services hearing on benefits to legal Hawaii COFA residents in January. Photo by Ed Greevy

HONOLULU—On Monday, Federal District Judge Seabright issued a Preliminary Injunction requiring the Hawaii Department of Human Services (DHS) to reinstate the medical benefits for legal residents living in Hawaii under Compact of Free Association (COFA). The order is the result of a lawsuit filed in August challenging the drastic health care cuts to low income residents from COFA nations.

The current order requiring DHS to reinstate health care services comes after a previous ruling by Judge Seabright, denying the State’s Motion to Dismiss and allowing the legal challenge to proceed. In his November 10, 2010 order, the judge criticized DHS arguments for the targeted health care cuts and rejected DHS’s “attempt to characterize their actions as simply creating a brand new benefits program where one did not exist.” Seabright noted that “for the last 14 years, Defendants [DHS] have treated COFA residents the same as citizens and other qualified aliens by allowing them access to the same programs, with the only difference being that COFA residents’ participation was funded through State dollars only. It is only now that Defendants [DHS] have decided to single out COFA residents for lesser benefits than are provided to citizens and other classes of aliens.”

Further, while the court recognized that the health care cuts were made in response to the State’s budget crisis, the judge found that “justification of limiting expenses is particularly inappropriate and unreasonable when the discriminated class consists of aliens.”

“Judge Seabright’s order reaffirms the values so central to the people of our islands,” said Victor Geminiani, Executive Director of Lawyers for Equal Justice. “We take care of each other, especially in difficult times, and we don’t pick on any people because of where they come from.”

Lawyers for Equal Justice (LEJ) and pro bono partners Bronster Hoshibata and Alston, Hunt, Floyd and Ing filed the current lawsuit in August, 2010 challenging the State’s decision eliminate all residents present in Hawaii under COFA from QUEST, the State’s Medicaid coverage plan. The State created Basic Health Hawaii (BHH), a new separate medical program for COFA residents that provides very limited medical benefits.

The suit comes approximately one year after Judge Seabright temporarily struck down DHS’s previous effort to deny medical benefits to COFA migrants based on DHS’s violation of their constitutional rights of due process.

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