Since the Basic Health Hawaii (BHH) health plan was blocked by a federal judge in December of 2010, there have been whispers in the community about the possibility of an appeal. The BHH plan was created to save the state approximately $15 million dollars a year by cutting access to health care services for Micronesian migrants. Those affected include only Micronesians under the Compact of Free Association (COFA), commonly referred to as COFA migrants. The BHH health plan would move low-income COFA migrants from the state’s MedQuest program to a cheaper plan that provides less benefits.

The decision to appeal the case was with the Governor’s office, but it has since been confirmed that the state will appeal the case in an attempt to reinstate the BHH health plan.

As state officials move forward with the appeal, they should be reminded of the unique case that COFA migrants present and wary of the consequences of an unequal public benefits plan that targets such an underepresented group.

There is a special case to be made for COFA migrants. It is well accepted that the federal government has a unique responsibility for COFA migrants stemming from its history under trusteeship. As trustee of the Micronesia region after World War II, the U.S. was responsible for helping the Micronesian islands gain independence and self-sustainability. While the U.S. pours millions into the individual Micronesian governments to fulfill those goals, the governments still have a long way to go towards achieving sustainability. As long as the U.S. continues to provide COFA migrants with a better life by offering educational and employment opportunities, COFA migrants will continue to move to the U.S. in search of those opportunities. Since Hawaii is the closest U.S. state to the Micronesian countries, it is only logical that COFA migrants will continue to settle in Hawaii. This makes Hawaii’s role at the state level extremely important.

Even though the COFA responsibility is said to be with the federal government, it is important that Hawaii takes responsibility for its residents. COFA migrants are part of Hawaii’s society and should be treated equally. They work and contribute to state taxes just like any other citizen and therefore should be eligible for state funded programs. Separating COFA migrants from the rest of Hawaii’s residents will only further the animosity and prejudice already experienced by the Micronesian community.

Responsibility is not solely with the federal government. Responsibility also lies with the state of Hawaii. It is important that the state recognizes the mutually beneficial relationship between COFA migrants and Hawaii. Unfortunately, the significance of COFA migrants in Hawaii has been underappreciated and undervalued. Media reports portray COFA migrants as a burdensome group with headlines that read, “Micronesians: the Invisible Malihini,” and “Micronesian Bill Too long Overdue; The Issue: The Federal Government Owes Hawaii Nearly $100 Million For Services Provided to Immigrants from Micronesia.”

They are often separated and pitted against other hard working immigrants who have been in Hawaii longer and have had time to grow accustomed to the U.S. way of life. Statistics and news reports about their consumption of public benefits further the perception that they are lazy and are present in Hawaii for the sole purpose of reaping welfare benefits. However, this misinformation focuses only on the negative influences of Micronesians in Hawaii. Less is known about the positive contributions that Micronesians provide to the state.

One of the most important Micronesian contributions to the state of Hawaii, especially to native Hawaiians, is the Micronesian influence on traditional canoe voyaging that was responsible for reviving interest in the native Hawaiian culture in the 1970s. Mau Piailug, a Micronesian from the island of Satawal, sparked a newfound interest and cultural appreciation for the native Hawaiian culture by teaching Hawaiians the lost art of traditional navigation. Mau was one of the last master navigators in the world that could sail a canoe without the use of modern instruments. He was able to traverse long distances between Pacific islands by reading the wind, sky, ocean swells, stars, as well as the sea birds and fish. The art of navigating had once been a part of the Hawaiian culture, but had since been lost.

From the teachings of Mau, native Hawaiians were able to relearn a part of the their culture that had been lost and set sail to their beloved Hokulea. This was instrumental in bringing about a cultural revolution that revived interest in the native Hawaiian culture that has persisted to this day. Mau, affectionately called “Papa Mau” by native Hawaiians, has since been featured in award-winning documentaries, received an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii, and been honored at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington “as one of the most important influences in the resurgence of cultural pride in the Pacific.”

According to Chad Kalepa Baybayan, who served as captain and navigator of eight voyages of the Hokulea, “Mau viewed and treated us as an oceanic ohana, defined not by an ocean that separated us, but rather an ocean that joined us around common traditions.” The wisdom that Mau imparted on his students spoke the truth about the connection between Micronesia and Hawaii:

“I have laid the stick that connects people together. Now it is up to you, your generation and the generations to come, to build upon that stick a bridge that will ensure the free sharing of information and teaching between the two peoples until the day we become united again as a single people, as we were once before; before men separated us with their imaginary political boundaries of today’s Polynesia and Micronesia.”

Mau passed away in 2010 at the age of 76. He suffered from diabetes. It is deeply disturbing to think that if he was to seek treatment in Hawaii for his disease, that he would have been ineligible under the BHH health plan for many life-saving treatments because he was a COFA migrant. While the story of Mau seems to be a unique standalone instance of a Micronesian contributing to Hawaii, that is not the case. There is much to be learned from Micronesians, as they have been successful in keeping past traditions and cultures alive and flourishing in the 21st century.

The story of Mau Piailug and his contributions to traditional navigation illustrate the potential for a beneficial and positive impact of Micronesians in Hawaii in regards to indigenous practices. As Pacific Islanders, Hawaii residents and Micronesians both share similar characteristics that include a desire to keep old traditions in the native cultures alive in the modern day. No one could foretell the enormous impact that Mau would have on native Hawaiians and Hawaii. There is no telling what other positive impacts and values are to be learned with the help of other indigenous people of the Pacific.

As state officials move forward with the appeal of the BHH case, they need to seriously consider the values that this imparts on the people of Hawaii. By moving forward with the appeal to reinstate the BHH health plan, they are suggesting that Micronesians are not a part of Hawaii and do not deserve equality.

About the author: Melanie Legdesog was born in Kentucky and raised in the Yap Islands in the Federated States of Micronesia. Her father is Micronesian (specifically, Ulithian from Ulithi Atoll) and her mother is American (from Kentucky). She graduated with my high school diploma in 2002 from the Yap Seventh-day Adventist School in Yap and moved to Hawaii to attend college. A graduate of Chaminade University, she is attending the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law. This summer, she will be volunteering at the Public Defender’s Office in Palikir, Pohnpei, the capitol of the FSM.

The above op-ed is an excerpt taken from her second-year seminar paper entitled: “Micronesians & Equality in Health Care: Examining the Basic Health Hawaii Health Plan.”