SPRINGDALE — The proposed restoration of Medicaid benefits to Marshall Islanders living in the United States would boost overall health in Northwest Arkansas, said lawmakers, health care providers and representatives of the Marshallese community on Monday.
“People will be able to afford the medicine I prescribe for them,” said Dr. Sheldon Riklon, a researcher at the Northwest Arkansas campus of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and a family practice doctor at Community Clinic. The clinic is a nonprofit that treats the region’s low-income families, which include many Marshallese.
Melisa Laelan, director of the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, expressed relief at the pending change in Medicaid policy. Regaining the benefit has dominated the efforts of groups like hers around the nation for 25 years, she said. She will be more relieved when and if the change is signed into law, she added.
Restoring Medicaid eligibility for Marshallese made it into the final version of the latest covid relief package, thanks largely to efforts by Pacific Islanders and their allies across the United States, Laelan said.
“I’m thinking about the lives we lost,” Laelan said Monday, referring to the covid-19 pandemic.
Marshallese or Pacific Islanders were over-represented in the covid-19 death toll early in the pandemic, for example accounting for more than 50% of the June deaths in Benton and Washington counties despite making up less than 3% of the region’s population. Those numbers dropped to two deaths in October and none in November.
A total of 48 Northwest Arkansas residents who were Marshallese or Pacific Islander have died of the virus, accounting for about 12% of the region’s deaths.
Underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes among many of the Marshallese contributed to those deaths, Riklon and Laelan said.
“Tomorrow we’ll have a better chance of living,” Laelan said.
Marshall Islanders are allowed unrestricted travel to the United States. Their homeland in the Pacific was a U.S. territory before gaining independence in 1979. The United States used some of the islands as a testing site for nuclear weapons while they were territories. The compact granting free travel is in part recompense for the harm done by those tests.
Arkansas is home to an estimated 15,000 Marshallese, according to U.S. Census estimates. Most of them live in Northwest Arkansas, census figures show.
Marshallese were eligible for Medicaid, a health program for the poor and disabled, until 1996. A change in federal law inadvertently took away their eligibility.
“There’s not any issue more important to the Marshallese,” said state Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, whose district has a large population of islanders.
Her predecessor, former state Rep. Jeff Williams, worked to get Marshallese children eligible for the state’s ArKids First program for health coverage, Godfrey said. Now whole families will get coverage. The federal measure will also relieve a problem for the state, she said.
“We were brainstorming for the next legislative session about how we could help cover the huge gap,” she said. “This is an absolutely huge win.”
Restoration of Marshallese Medicaid eligibility is long overdue, Williams said Monday.
“Everybody who knows their story has been supportive of this. Any reasonable person would be,” he said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed his appreciation for the pending change.
“Medicaid coverage for our Marshallese is something I have supported and I am grateful for congressional action to correct this inequity,” he said in a statement. “Our federal delegation has been instrumental in this significant step in improving health care coverage.”
Supporters of the measure described the congressional breakthrough as sudden.
“To be honest, we are really surprised and grateful it made it in because this is such a slimmed-down package” for covid relief, said Laura Kellams, Northwest Arkansas director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a nonprofit group supporting improved health in the state. “This is an injustice finally being made right.”
Riklon, Laelan, Godfrey, Kellams, Williams and others all thanked U.S. Rep. Steve Womack of Northwest Arkansas’ 3rd Congressional District for his efforts. Womack was the first Republican to co-sponsor an earlier House bill that paved the way for the change. That bill was incorporated into the stimulus package.
“This technical fix has been a priority of mine, and Congress has finally resolved an unintended wrong,” Womack said in a statement.
Marshallese workers in the United States live here legally and pay U.S. taxes, he said.
“Knowing that Marshallese families in Northwest Arkansas will soon have restored access to care has always been critical, but even more so during this pandemic. We are honoring our promise to important national security partners who are also part of the fabric of our communities,” he said.
Direct benefit to the Marshallese is the most important aspect of the measure, said state Sen. Lance Eads, R-Springdale, but the change will also benefit health care providers, from individual doctors and clinics to hospitals. Many had to scramble to find ways to pay for the care needed by Marshallese patients, he said.
This change will allow more preventative care to Marshallese, improving the overall health of Northwest Arkansas, Eads said. “I think this is a great benefit to a much-needed portion of our community,” he said.
Riklon agreed: “People had to leave health conditions like diabetes and kidney disease untreated because they had to pay rent,” he said. “Then they came to the emergency room when it got bad enough.”
“What a great Christmas gift,” he said.