Suit Follows Federal Court Order Halting State’s Previous Plan to Cut Benefits

Honolulu, Aug. 23, 2010 – Today a class of low-income Hawai‘i residents filed a federal lawsuit against the Hawai‘i Department of Human Services in an attempt to force the state to reinstate necessary medical services. The suit claims DHS has illegally discriminated against the residents by drastically cutting their medical benefits based on the plaintiffs’ status as legal residents from other countries.

The suit comes approximately one year after a federal judge temporarily struck down DHS’s previous effort to deny medical benefits to a similar class of Hawai‘i residents. The new suit targets DHS’s new strategy — to severely cut but not eliminate benefits to certain residents based on national origin.

“During the past 8 years, we have seen many examples of federal intervention due to the Lingle Administration’s disregard of the rights of the weak, the poor and disabled,” said Paul Alston of Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing. “This is another shameful example of this administration’s callousness and lack of regard for the law.”

Plaintiffs include legal immigrants who have been U.S. residents for less than five years and non-immigrant legal residents living in Hawai‘i under so-called COFA treaties, which grant free entry into the United States to citizens of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. Representing the plaintiffs are attorneys from the non-profit organization Lawyers for Equal Justice, and the firms of Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing and Bronster Hoshibata.

“I am disappointed that Hawai‘i would adopt laws that so blatantly discriminate against Micronesians and immigrants.” said Catherine Leilani Aubuchon, an attorney with Bronster Hoshibata, who is from the Federated States of Micronesia.

“Our state owes much of what we are today to the contributions that legal immigrants like members of the COFA nations have made to our economy, our culture, and our values,” said Victor Geminiani, Executive Director of Lawyers for Equal Justice. “It is a tragedy that the Governor has now chosen to severely ration life-sustaining health care by targeting the most vulnerable population among us.”

The focus of the suit is DHS’s Basic Health Hawai’i program, or BHH, a Hawai‘i health insurance program established to cover legal aliens living in the United States for less than five years, as well as Hawai‘i residents from Pacific nations that have entered a series of treaties with the United States. Known as Compacts of Free Association, or COFA, the treaties establish special relationships between the U.S. and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Republic of Palau. For example, under COFA, the United States is allowed conduct military operations in the COFA nations, while citizens of those nations are allowed to “enter into, lawfully engage in occupations, and establish residence as … non-immigrant[s] in the United States and its territories and possessions.”
“The State of Hawai‘i may not discriminate on the basis of national origin,” said Margery S. Bronster, name partner of Bronster Hoshibata and a former Attorney General for the State of Hawai‘i. “Once the U.S. government allowed COFA residents free access to the U.S., no state could limit those rights.”

The suit also asserts that DHS’s program is constitutionally impermissible because it is inconsistent with federal policy and encroaches on exclusive federal power. Finally, the suit claims that DHS’s policy violates the “integration mandate” of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits a government entity from forcing persons to go into an isolated institutional setting in order to obtain essential medical services.

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