Conference Room 329 at the state Capitol was packed Thursday morning for a legislative briefing on Micronesians in Hawaii.
It’s a complicated, and emotional issue.
The state’s latest immigrant group, allowed under federal law to live and work in the United States, seeks health-care services they don’t have back at home. But Hawaii can’t cover the Medicaid payements and is pleading with the courts and federal government for relief.
Home for Micronesians includes the location of 67 nuclear tests from just after World War II until the 1960s. They argue that history has contributed to large numbers of Marshall Islanders requiring dialysis and cancer treatment.
But all this raises a question: Is there anything the Hawaii Legislature can really do to help the people from three Micronesian nations who have made Hawaii their new home?
The short answer is “not really.”
As state Rep. John Mizuno, the chair of House Human Services who convened Thursday’s briefing, admitted, the state simply doesn’t have to financial resources to help the department of Health and Human Services meet the needs of a growing clientele. The total Micronesian population in Hawaii is estimated to be more than 20,000, most from Chuuk and the Marshall Islands.
DHS alone spent $52 million in 2010 to provide services services to citizens covered under the federal Compact of Free Association, the agreement between the U.S. and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau.
The federal government provided only $11.2 million in COFA funds to Hawaii for fiscal year 2011. Both the Lingle and Abercrombie administrations balked at Hawaii’s tab and moved to cut back local support — a move rejected by a Hawaii court but likely to be appealed.
Meanwhile, Hawaii’s congressional delegation is trying to convince the federal government to provide medical services within the COFA nations themselves.
Here at home, Mizuno has tried to do something to help, for example by introducing legislation to require DHS to provide medical services. But the bills go nowhere.
Only one other lawmaker, Republican Kymberly Pine, attended Thursday’s briefing. Also largely absent were representatives from the congressional delegation (Mizuno said he had been in contact with all four offices) and local agencies.
There were, however, an awful lot of concerned people at the briefing, including many Micronesians. It provided them with a forum to express those concerns.
Some complained about the discriminatory treatment they felt they had received. They stressed their strongly held view that they have a legal, even moral right to come to Hawaii for opportunity
Innocenta Sound-Kikku of the Micronesian Health Advisory Coalition welled up with tears as she described the difficulties of caring for her father, a former Chuuk lieutenant governor now living here.
“Just because we are the newest immigrants does not mean we are stupid and we don’t know what to do,” she said. “We are a compassionate people. We contribute to the state of Hawaii. … I appeal to your compassion. What does it take take for us to be considered human? I am sure there is a way we can all work together … money is not reason enough.”
Sound-Kikku continued: “You have the people of Micronesia in Hawaii. They are never going away.”
William J. Swain, president of Pa Emman Kabjere, a Marshallese community group, grew up 200 miles from Bikini Atoll.
“It’s ground zero, just like New York, but only with a thousand times yield of TNT,” he said.
Besides continuing medical problems from the nuclear fallout, entire cultures lost their traditional way of life.
Marsha Rose Joyner, a Hawaii resident who advocates for COFA migrants, was asked by Mizuno what she thought about asking COFA member states to help with health-care support.
“I find that question offensive,” she said, pointing to the nuclear testing. “To ask them to fund their recovery is absolutely absurd.”
In spite of the rejections of ideas like getting COFA states to kick in support, Mizuno said he is committed to at least bringing up possible solutions.
One thought is to require federal hospitals to take in COFA patients, though the idea has already been nixed by Tripler Army Medical Center.
Another idea is to seek an amendment to COFA in terms of funding for medical help. And, dialysis companies with Hawaii operations such as Fresenius and Liberty Dialysis may be open to limited free care.
Meanwhile, the needs of COFA migrants continue to grow.
Marc Alexander, the state’s coordinator on homelessness, said 2007 data showed COFA migrants made up 5 percent of the homeless population. By June 30, 2010, it was 20 percent, and 25 percent of people in homeless shelters are from COFA states.
New homeless figures are expected next month.