Lawsuit: State Discriminates in Care for Micronesians

New cuts to medical benefits for low-income residents based on nationality amount to discrimination, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed Monday against the state of Hawaii on behalf of disabled Micronesians.

Roughly 7,500 Micronesians live in Hawaii as legal residents and depend on the Hawaii Department of Human Services for medical benefits. Significant changes to their health-care plan went into effect in July — including limiting coverage to 12 doctors' visits per year and four prescription medications.

"We've very sensitive and empathetic to the financial situation we all find ourselves in — our state and country. We just don't think that denying critical health care to the most marginalized people in our society is a good way to start solving these problems," said Victor Geminiani, executive director for the nonprofit Lawyers for Equal Justice, which filed the suit along with firms Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing and Bronster Hoshibata.

At issue is the state Department of Human Services' new "Basic Health Hawaii" program, a health insurance program established to cover legal aliens who have lived in the U.S. for less than five years. The program also covers Hawaii residents from Pacific nations that have entered treaties with the U.S. that grant them the same privileges given to U.S. residents — including health care.

Last year, the state attempted to cut benefits to COFA residents entirely. Lawyers filed suit and won an injunction on procedural grounds, showing that the state made changes without giving the public adequate notice or holding the necessary public hearings. A federal judge also temporarily struck down the department's attempt to deny benefits.

The state's new plan no longer eliminates benefits but instead reduces them. Monday's suit challenges the substance of the plan changes.

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